Mar 5, 2021 | LIFE | By Joshua Kalenga | Illustration by Bibi Powers
If I had a penny for every time I said something utterly incoherent in response to “how are you?”, I’d be paying full tuition at Colorado College.
If you identify as an introvert, you may relate. Aside from the daily small talk that doesn’t always seem so small, you are frequently asked “why are you so quiet?” or told to “speak up more.”
But those who love and understand an introverted friend, sibling, or partner recognize that there is unique value in their quiet, dreamy inner worlds. As science improves in its understanding of human personality, we can all learn how to better care for our introverted loved ones.
Introversion is just one of five personality traits identified as part of the big five personality test. It’s not true that all introverts are shy (though many are) — shyness is an indicator of another personality trait known as neuroticism. Neither is it true that “introverts hate people” — this is determined by a different trait called agreeableness.
I love people. I love dinner time conversations with my family around a table of hot food and warm banter. I love the company of childhood friends, as tender and familiar as the lyrics of an old song. I love getting to know someone new, discovering their endless anthology of short stories — funny, sad, and heartwarming, falling in love with their tiniest of details.
Loving other people and being introverted are not mutually exclusive.
Yes, attending a party can be overwhelming. Introverts are characterized by a focus on internal thoughts, feelings, and moods as opposed to external sources of stimulation such as social attention. Being around too many people at once can leave an introvert feeling drained.
It can be tempting to assume that introverts are disinterested in a particular conversation since they don’t always express their enthusiasm verbally. Is that not the assumption embedded in ‘class participation’ grades whereby a professor measures participation by how frequently a student speaks in class?
However, anyone who’s flipped through the notebook of their introverted loved one (or anyone, for that matter) might note that interest can be expressed in a variety of ways other than talking.
In fact, the introvert in me, sitting silently in a discussion-heavy class where the same ideas seem to be floating back and forth across the room, sometimes ponders whether verbal communication is overrated.
Introverts, particularly those who love to read, can be deemed ‘anti-social’ for choosing to spend time alone with their beloved novels. But I often wonder why activities like reading are not considered a profound way of interacting with the world (and others) in their own right.
Carl Sagan, a popular astronomer and science communicator in the 1980s, once said, “One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”
When I go through my old school report cards, buried somewhere in my parents’ bedroom drawers, there is one common comment from many of my former teachers: ‘Too quiet!’ Growing up, these comments constantly reminded me that my introversion was something to be fixed.
Yet, I was fortunate enough to find reassurance from some other teachers, who instead described me as ‘thoughtful’ or ‘reflective.’ This affirmation, achieved simply by a shift in perspective, was my first flirtation with an idea that has been brewing in me ever since: There is unique power in introversion.
Although extroverts tend to dominate public and leadership positions, author Susan Cain notes that some of the world’s most transformative thinkers and leaders — Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Wozniak — were introverts. The solitude that introverts tend to value highly, Cain argues, is a crucial ingredient for creativity.
Thus, instead of asking introverts to ‘be louder,’ perhaps our societies need to become more accommodating to silence. Some of the first steps to doing so involve empathy and understanding, so I reached out to some of my introverted friends to ask them what they would like the extroverts in their lives to know.
These were their responses:
“I wish that extroverts around me knew that I enjoy being around them, but sometimes I just need some time on my own to be with myself, to get to know myself better by doing the things I like, such as journaling and drawing. I also don’t talk about myself a lot [but] I want my extrovert friends to still be able to understand me.” ~ Jia Mei ’21
“Being introverted doesn’t mean that we hate talking. In fact, we are selectively talkative.” ~ Bright Throngprasertchai ’23
“Dear extrovert friends, most of the time, I find larger gatherings overwhelming and draining instead of exciting. Also, if I’m saying no to hanging out, I’m probably not angry with you, I just need my own time and space to recharge sometimes, and the less energy I have (like during a pandemic), the more I need to recharge. We don’t need to hang out every free moment to sustain our friendship, and it’s really important for me to get to spend time with myself.” ~ Anthony Emerson ’23
“Although introverts are commonly perceived as shy and reserved, our introversion doesn’t affect our ability to connect with others.” ~ AiLi Pigott ’22