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Mary Cleary Kiely: Making room for introverts in an extrovert’s culture

“I’ve just gotta get myself out there, come on and get out there, don’t even think about going back into the bathroom…” I can still hear those tapes in my

head, self-talk from the sidelines of the first dances I ever went to, forced myself to go to, in seventh grade. I was new to the public junior high. My best friends had stayed behind at another school.

I was pretty introverted, which most experts agree involves having a preference for lower stimulation environments, with less noise and less action.

(Depending on which study you consult, between one-third and one-half of Americans fall on the introvert end of the temperament spectrum.) Years later, in a management training seminar, I would be tested and actually classified as an ambivert, someone who is almost equally balanced between introversion and extroversion. By age 12, however, I had already figured out that the part of me that craved quiet was regarded as uncool. So like many other people with significant tendencies toward introversion, I’d decided to downplay those characteristics as much as I could.

Cultural demands

According to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World

That Can’t Stop Talking,” extroversion has always had a special place in American lore and culture. But she says the notion of extroversion as the preferred way of being came to prominence at the turn of the 20th century, with the rise of big business and the need for people to promote themselves. For all of our supposed reverence for individuality, American society clearly puts a premium on gregariousness.

I saw this national leaning very clearly when I worked as a junior admissions

officer at an Ivy League college many years ago. Candidates were evaluated on two main dimensions: academic and personal. The academic rating was fairly straightforward, though not formulaic. The personal rating was a good bit more subjective, however. Many introverted kids, the ones most people would describe as “different drummers,” got excellent personal marks. In general, though, I observed that a very high degree of individual accomplishment (in the arts or in science, for example) was required to “offset” a perceived lack of sociability. It seemed that a far easier route to getting a high personal rating was to present clear evidence of comfort and leadership in group settings, for example by being a class or club officer or a team captain.

The extent to which our society lionizes people who are outgoing, and believes creativity and productivity come most from the collective, is reflected not only in selective college admissions decisions, but also in our schools and workplaces.

The downside of teamwork

As Cain points out, classroom desks are increasingly arranged in clusters, and collaborative learning is the dominant instructional paradigm. Many employers require people to work in teams, in offices without walls. She says the average amount of space per employee has actually shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet today.

This might be OK if group thinking always was superior and introverts had little to contribute, but not so. Just to cite one example, Cain says that when it comes to creativity and efficiency, group brainstorming has been shown to be inferior to the work of people operating alone. This is because many people in groups tend to become distracted, passive, less inclined to believe in their own ideas, and more inclined to succumb to peer pressure. (The one exception to this is electronic brainstorming, where groups do better than individuals. Having a bunch of individuals work autonomously, and then pool their efforts with the protection of the screen, apparently eases some of the difficulties of face-to-face work. Remote collaboration may be the wave of the future.)

In the face of all the societal pressures toward extroversion, how can we best support the introverted young people in our families and classrooms and harness what they have to offer? Cain has a lot of suggestions, the most important of which is: Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be fixed. Studies by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist confirm what many people already recognize, that the most creative people in many fields are introverted. Introverted children often have deep interests, which should be encouraged.

Cain says teachers should balance activities and teaching methods to reach both introverts and extroverts. Introverts are inclined to prefer downtime, lectures and independent projects. Extroverts are more likely to enjoy movement, stimulation and collaborative efforts.

There also can be useful cross-learning across temperaments. Introverts can benefit from some group work, especially if the groups are small and well- managed, with clear division of roles. Likewise, extroverts can profit from ample opportunities to do solitary work. The research of psychologist Anders Ericsson clearly indicates that the surest route to mastery in a given endeavor is to work on the task that is most difficult for you personally. Often that means working solo.

Cain also says school administrators should be very careful about basing school admissions decisions on a child’s performance in a group setting, as this may be a poor indicator of the riches within. We experienced this directly in our family when the oldest of our three children, Bridget, went to her first preschool “interview” at a highly-regarded school in New Jersey. She was only 2½ at the time, but could speak very well. When instructed to go play with the other children, in what quite frankly looked like a “Lord of the Flies” setting, Bridget rooted her feet firmly to the floor and announced to the director, “I don’t like this school!” Two days later we got her rejection notice.

Today Bridget is a college sophomore majoring in neuroscience, with hopes of becoming a geneticist. And who knows? Maybe Bridget, with her introverted tendencies, will help advance the understanding and treatment of some of the most debilitating ailments and conditions of our time.

Mary Cleary Kiely, who writes the monthly Parent to Parent column, may be reached at parenttoparent@gazettenet.com.

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