Being an introvert in an extroverted world: advocating for ‘the quiet ones’
Shy, quiet, sensitive, withdrawn, nerdy, anti-social, rude…even stupid! These are all words that are (incorrectly) used to describe quiet or introverted children.
This blog is a reflection of the challenges of being one of ‘the quiet ones’ in an education system that idealises extroversion. We, Eva and Kerrie, want to share our experiences, reflect upon challenges, and highlight what it’s like to be an introvert in an ‘extroverted world’ (Thom, 2020). We also pose an important question: Have schools become toxic places for introverted children*?
*We use identity first language, i.e. ‘introverted children’ or ‘introverted people’, reflecting our own personal preference. In practice, we acknowledge and encourage that an individual’s preference should always be sought.
What is introversion?
The terms introversion and extroversion were first used by Carl Jung (1921/1971), who described them as central dimensions of personality. Jung stated that nobody is a pure introvert or extrovert and that we all have attributes of both traits. However, the relative dominance of one over the other influences our main way of interacting with the world. Since Jung’s initial work, the introversion-extroversion continuum has become one of the most researched personality areas (Cain, 2013). However, much of the research has been skewed towards extroversion (Noya & Vernon, 2019) and there is still no universally agreed definition for each of these terms.
Introversion is generally understood as a tendency to be more focused on the internal world of thoughts and feelings, rather than the outer world of people and things. Introverts tend to be quieter, more reserved and deliberate than their extroverted counterparts and they often prefer to work independently or in smaller groups.
The myths of introversion
Confusion about introversion has been heightened by misconceptions about the term. Introverts are often seen as shy, lacking in sociability, or under-confident; all traits which can, but don’t necessarily, coexist with introversion. Introversion can look like shyness. However, shyness tends to come from a place of nervousness about being accepted by others, making mistakes, or saying the wrong thing. Introverts tend to be quiet for other reasons; they are listening and processing or do not feel the need to contribute at that moment (rather than feeling they are not able to). Introversion is not a lack of sociability. Most introverts enjoy socialising but simply do so on different terms and in different ways than extroverts.
We hope that by shining a light on introversion, we can begin to challenge some of these misconceptions and show that we shouldn’t focus on what extroverts ‘have’ and what introverts ‘lack’, or vice-versa. We want to champion introversion alongside extroversion and encourage consideration about how individuals simply need different conditions to thrive depending on their personality.
The ‘extrovert ideal’
Susan Cain (2013) explains how Western society often overlooks introverts and idealises extroverted characteristics, such as being talkative, seeking the spotlight, and being first to raise your hand when a question is asked. She calls this the ‘extrovert ideal’, with the implication that we should all be seeking ways to overcome our quiet disposition and become more outgoing.
This ideal is what we are seeking to challenge. We aren’t looking to question or undermine extroverts. We acknowledge that introverts and extroverts complement each other wonderfully. Both personality types should be celebrated. Yet, we know from personal experience that introversion is habitually viewed as inferior to extroversion, across all age groups. As trainee educational psychologists (TEPs) who seek to promote inclusion for all children in education, we ask ourselves: why is introversion not given the same status as extroversion? Does the ‘extrovert ideal’ inherently discriminate against introverted children?
School: A toxic place for introverts?
Schools are anything but quiet. From busy playgrounds and noisy lunch halls to classrooms with group activities and grouped tables, schools are far better suited to extroverted students (Thom, 2020). Talking is celebrated, children are encouraged to speak up, and being outgoing and extroverted is often viewed as desirable (Thom, 2020). The concept of ‘quiet’ is not typically positively encouraged and, at times, is even presented as a punishment – “If you don’t stop talking, we’re all going to work in silence”. Within this context, introverts can go unnoticed or, worse, can be perceived by their teachers as being less able than their more talkative peers (Coplan et al., 2011).
Below is an honest and open account from a friend of her school experience. She is now a successful writer and copy editor for an international publishing company.
“…but she needs to speak up more.” If I had a pound for every time I’d seen a variation on this sentence in one of my school reports, I’d be pretty rich. ‘Boring’, ‘rude’, ‘stupid’ – these are all labels that have been used to describe me, because I’m quiet. My Year 9 science teacher loved to pick on me to answer questions in front of the class; cue complete panic and brain fog on my part, laughter and eye-rolling from my classmates. In Year 12 Spanish, my extrovert teacher once told me it was a miracle I’d been accepted into university, after I forgot the Spanish word for an obscure piece of stationery in front of the rest of the class. Feeling a complete failure, I ran to the toilets to self-harm before making my way to my next lesson”.
This powerful account serves to highlight the damaging psychological impacts of what Thom (2020, p.14) calls the “flippant dismissal of quiet”. As psychologists, we call for greater awareness, appreciation, and celebration of introverted personalities in schools.
Introverts are discounted by being labelled as ‘quiet’, almost as if this is their sole defining feature to the exclusion of other traits. Remarks such as “you’re very quiet” or “you don’t say much, do you?” are common narratives, always with the implication that ‘quiet’ is undesirable, a problem that needs to be solved. The extrovert ideal and the associated view of introversion as a ‘problem’ is perhaps best summed up in the use of the word ‘but’:
“you’re very hard working but you need to speak up more”
“you’re a lovely person but you’re a bit quiet”
“your child is doing great in my class but he’s very shy”
Comments such as these ultimately tell introverted people like us that our positive qualities have limited worth without talk and chat to back them up. For us, it is only now as adults that we have begun to embrace our introverted nature and accept that we don’t need ‘fixing’, yet we still find ourselves contending with the ‘extrovert ideal’. As TEPs, we continue to find ourselves dealing with similar dilemmas. We’ve both been subtly informed that educational psychology is an extroverted profession. And so, we wonder: Does the profession exclude introverts? Does the profession inadvertently discourage introverted people from applying to the doctorate?
Time for quiet?
Schools should nurture, encourage growth, and celebrate diversity. School staff have an obligation to make their classrooms welcoming and supportive places for all students. Should it not be the role of school to encourage introverted children to see the value of their temperaments, rather than discredit them because they don’t fit into a desired norm? Extroversion is not a ‘skill’ that should be taught to introverted pupils. We need to value introverts’ uniqueness and promote their qualities in an equal way to extroversion. After all, where would we be without introverts like J.K. Rowling, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, and Mahatma Gandhi?
We believe we have a double mission: to ensure that introversion is not seen as a negative pathology that needs to be ‘fixed’, and to advocate for ‘the quiet ones’ in school to have their voice heard and to receive the support and encouragement that they deserve.
“Quiet people have the loudest minds” – Stephen King.
Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. London, England: Penguin.
Cain, S. (2016). Quiet power: Growing up as an introvert in a world that can’t stop talking. London, England: Penguin Life.
Coplan, R.J., Hughes, K., Bosacki, S., & Rose-Krasnor, L. (2011). Is silence golden? Elementary school teachers’ strategies and beliefs regarding hypothetical shy/quiet and exuberant/talkative children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(4), 939-951. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0024551
Jung, C.G. (1921/1971). Psychological Types. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Noya, C. & Vernon, L. (2019). Where are all the introverts hiding? An analysis of introversion in research. Florida Atlantic University Undergraduate Research Journal, 8, 34-38.
Thom, J. (2020). A quiet education: Challenging the extrovert ideal in our schools. Woodbridge, England: John Catt Educational.