“I’ve always felt like there was something wrong with me, like I needed to change in some way.”In 2013, I published my book about introverts. The quote above comes from an email that arrived in my Inbox four days later. And there’s been many more letters since then, all giving voice to the same basic idea. The contents of these letters speak loudly for a group of people who don’t much enjoy speaking loudly.
These are the stories of quiet children, who spent their formative years being urged to “be more outgoing” by adult authority figures.
The constant disappointment of their parents eventually taught these kids that their own natural pace wasn’t good enough. And they were obviously still suffering the effects of these childhood experiences much later in their lives.
What is it like for a quiet kid to constantly have his or her own nature questioned? “Why don’t you go make some friends?”
What is it like to constantly be told that the person you are when you’re being yourself isn’t right? “Don’t be so timid. Be bold instead!”
I’ve also received emails from worried parents of introverted children.
“Can we get this fixed? How can I make him less shy?”
(I never answered that email, as I simply had no idea where to even begin.)
“You have to be more outgoing!”Every child is unique (although they do all seem to be much the same in terms of mucus). They each have their own individual rhythms, and their own languages. Some children prefer to dance when they’re being watched, while others will only do it when nobody’s watching. They have enormous hearts, and plastic self-images. Some of them direct their energy towards the world, while others keep their attention focused on an inner tapestry of ideas. Introversion is associated with a lower tolerance for dopamine. In everyday language, this means that you don’t need very much of it to experience your world as rich enough – you don’t get bored easily. Introverted kids don’t need to surrounded by a murmur of voices to feel alive. They don’t need lots of friends bragging to them about how many of their primary teeth they’ve lost. One friend is plenty (a Basset is a good choice, or some other creature that appreciates the value of silence).
The quiet kids often withdraw into their own bubbles. At the dinner table, they spend half of the time staring vacantly into space. In their everyday existences, broken ironing boards are derelict spaceships, and a rusty boules ball is a meteorite from planet NepTinnitus.
So, why is it that the age we live in is so insistent that that these children should all be social supernovas?
Why does everybody have to be Mick Jagger?
Why can’t we just let the quiet kids be Keith Richards? (minus all the drugs, of course)
“If You’re not Being Heard, You Don’t Exist!”
Have you ever been to a meeting with a bunch of those people who’ve spent their whole lives being told to “be more outgoing”? Of course you have.
Some people seem to have acquired a ravenous hunger for attention. They don’t join in to interact, they do it to dominate. When several of them come together in one place, the whole room descends into a cacophony of self-centered energy. They listen to what you say not to take in your words, but to find a way in for their own words. When they gather around an oval table they erupt in a frenzy, like a school of piranhas feeding on the silence of others. Fragmented sentences fill the room, and the noise only escalates as they keep interrupting each other. This is an exercise in one-upmanship, not communication.
What Exactly Does it Mean to be “Outgoing”?
It used to be that acting like an extravert was simply not the respectable thing to do. These days, it’s become a badge of honor, like some kind of cub scout patch for social excellence. Now, résumés proudly announce that “People always tell me I’m really outgoing and good at putting myself forward!”
Longitudinal cultural research has identified a trend of increasingly extraverted behavior originating as far back as the fifties. Loud behavior has become the ideal in our age. Narcissistic personality disorder is on the rise, too. In case you’re wondering if you might suffer from this affliction, here’s a personality test:
- Think about yourself
- If you got this far, you’re not a narcissist. Narcissism is a disorder which involves an extreme focus on one’s own ego, an internal monolog endlessly repeating the mantra “me-me-me-me-me”.
American psychologist Jean Twenge even claims that the prevalence of highly extraverted norms in our age has fostered an army of little narcissists.
”… But when I heard about that word, ‘introvert’, all of that stuff changed.”
So far, the overwhelming response to my book has been far less preoccupied with how well written it is than with the word it discusses. The ideal of a constantly spontaneous and self-assured social being has caused many to feel as though their only option is to live their life behind a mask. Their strategy for survival is to have a public persona which is separate from their private persona.
In an age when grading criteria include the amount of time you spend speaking in class, people who prefer to think before they speak will often be at a disadvantage. In an age where your social status is measured by the number of friends, likes, and followers you have, social currency has become a major concern of the younger generations. And this currency has suffered inflation so severe that participating in The Bachelor on TV has become a viable way to win social status.
I heard about a clever way of making sure that everybody gets their say in debates. The method is called Post-It Poverty, and it works just as well in schools as it does in professional contexts. Each participant receives a number of Post-It notes. Whenever a participant wants to say something, he or she has to spend a Post-It note to “buy” speaking time. If you’re out of notes, you have to keep quiet. This way, each person will be given an equal number of opportunities to speak, no matter how attention-craving certain members of the group might be.
Quiet children won’t end up leading voiceless existences simply because we let them choose their own paths. Let them find their own forums, their own voices, and their own tribes. The assumption that the only channel open to them is spoken language is simply false.
What would have happened if JK Rowling hadn’t been permitted to lose herself in her stories from an early age? How much less fun would your commute to work have been if Markus Notch Persson had been forced to play Yahtzee with his family every waking moment, instead of learning to code? I really can’t say, because I grew up in a family where the desire to spend time alone was always met with acceptance. I was always an introvert, but I’ve learned to be comfortable with speaking, probably because the decision to do it has always been my own. I was never pressured into putting on my band uniform to play the national anthem at family gatherings. My mother never tried to convince me to try to be outgoing in front of a crowd. I’d like to claim that this is the very reason why speaking could become something I do in my everyday work. That’s how motivation works. When it grows from within, from your own curiosity, your will is unbreakable.
So, dear child: By all means, be outgoing.
But don’t be outgoing simply to ease your parents’ worries and convince them that you’re normal. (Because you are).
And don’t be outgoing simply to make your parents proud of you for being the school’s alpha male or most popular girl. When somebody tells you to be more outgoing, ask them what for. And never do it unless it’s what you want to do..
I, the author firmly believe that the things we can not joke about, are things we should not take seriously. With that said, it is a dead serious book that describes introversion with a lot of warmth (and extraversion with a tone of sarcasm).