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Dusting Off the Wallflowers: Giving a Deserving Voice to Introverts
In director, Simon Curtis’s 2012 film adaptation of Stephen Chbonsky’s coming-of-age book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it is Charlie’s first day at his new high school. Charlie, the main character of the story, comes into his English classroom quietly, trying his best to ignore verbal taunts and mocking stares from his peers. The English teacher, Mr. Anderson, begins the class by asking English trivia questions. Charlie’s classmates try their best to answer the questions by shouting out author names and book titles or by raising their hands to give the first answer that comes to their minds. As his classmates struggle, Charlie knows the correct answer for each question and, unnoticeably, jots each answer down in his notebook. Despite his vast literary knowledge, he never once raises his hand to answer. Charlie has something to offer, but he does not have the fitting environment in which to do so. He is an outcast introvert among the socially and culturally preferred extrovert crowd. In today’s society, many people ignorantly form demeaning assumptions that marginalize introverts while promoting a restrictive, extrovert-funneled world—leaving nowhere for the introvert’s strengths to shine.
In 1923, Carl Jung, an early psychologist, termed and defined categories describing two generalized, human personality types—the “introvert” and the “extrovert.” If someone is an introvert, he or she is usually very soft-spoken and prefers low social stimulation. Even so, introverts do have the ability to demonstrate strength in the social sphere for a limited amount of time (Cain). Introverts express traits of solitude, reliability, sensitivity, and creativity. They often listen well and take time to reflect; they think before speaking. Introverts tend to be hesitant or even shy in overwhelming social realms. By contrast, Extroverts thrive in high-stimulation social situations. They are defined by their charisma, outward confidence, spontaneity, and tendency to make hasty decisions. Data collected from a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a common personality-determining system, found that introverts represent 50 percent of the American population (Helgoe 58). Why, then, does the national preference still weigh so heavily on the extrovert side of the spectrum?
The societal issue of a lacking recognition for introverts has not always existed. Yes, the American culture has always placed the extrovert personality above the introvert personality; yet, the gap did not surface until the 20th century (“Quiet Please: Unleashing the Power of Introverts” 2). The turn of the century brought along changes that altered peoples’ lifestyles as well as their perspectives. Prior to the 1920s, Americans lived on farms and rarely socialized with those outside of their own small communities or neighboring farming families (Cain). Once cities were erected and new jobs were available within those cities however, urbanization and immigration phases occurred and drew people from the farms and countries overseas into the cities. Soon, people found that to get ahead and be successful in the city they had to be individualistic by having a social and personal edge. Susan Cain, author of the book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking and self-professed introvert, notes historians who describe two different cultures separated by pre-20th century and post-20th century. According to those historians, America first presented itself as a “culture of character,” a culture of modesty, deep thinkers, and putting others first. Soon, however, the beginning of the 21st century brought with it a “culture of personality,” a culture of loud, fast-paced living, easy communication and self-promotion—the culture of today’s America. To express the increasingly extrovert-leaning American way, Susan Cain notes in Quiet that she coined the phrase “Extrovert Ideal" (Cain). Ever since the 20th century, this “Extrovert Ideal” has become increasingly evident in nearly all of America’s institutions.
The extrovert culture assumes that introverts’ silence, “slow” response, and desire to be alone are problems instead of, simply, alternative personality traits. Extroverts cannot decipher the abstract and complex personality of the introvert because as extroverts their personalities are factual and straightforward. To an extrovert, an introvert who is uncomfortable in high-stimulation social situations, is, in some cases, mentally ill, is experiencing an anxiety disorder, or is just socially awkward. The current culture is ignorant and misunderstands introverts so often that introverts have begun to feel guilty about the way they are. Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist and writer for Psychology Today, writes in her article, “Revenge of the Introverts,” that introverts “feel guilty about what works best for them, they feel alienated not only from society but from themselves” (58). The guilt can then transfer to the introvert’s desire to reciprocate society’s narrow personality acceptance, meaning introverts will attempt to wear an extrovert “mask.” In other words, introverts feel the need to fake their way to the top or simply fake their way through life to be accepted or meet the invisible standard upheld by the majority of Americans (Khanweiler). As previously noted, approximately half of the United States’ population accounts for those who are introverts (Helgoe 58). Such statistics may raise skepticism because of the fact that so many true introverts feel they must falsely present themselves as their extrovert counterparts (Cain). Such a realization should not go on being ignored; conformity should not become the norm. America is supposed to be the “melting pot” not only for people of different origins, but for people with various personality types as well. Unfortunately, as Susan Cain explains in Quiet, “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.” Calling 50% (or any percentage of Americans for that matter) second-rate is a disgrace to the very principles Americans stand by. In some cases, introverts believe that their discomfort in social situations is the result of a medical issue like an anxiety disorder or social phobia. They want to have a reason or diagnosis for their “symptoms” of guilt and why they do not seem to fit in (Dowbiggin 434). Perfectly healthy introverts will sometimes turn to medical or self-diagnoses for answers. Sometimes the situation goes as far as the introvert taking costly medications or going through expensive, extensive therapy to “fix” a problem they think or are told exists (432). Medicine can ultimately lead to addiction and a waste of money, especially when the medication is unnecessary in the first place. Introverts should not be led to believe that they are missteps in society. They have many attributes that the American culture can use more of—attributes that extroverts often cannot offer.
A second common misconception that the extrovert ideology presents about introverts is that introverts are shy. Surprisingly, introversion and shyness are two different traits. The two qualities are often confused because of their common level of low social stimulation (Helgoe 57). Those who experience shyness have the intense desire to interact socially, but feel they are emotionally unable to do so. Shy people fear what other people think of them in social situations; they feel they are outcasts even though they are not (“Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?” 2). Shyness can decrease in a person’s personality if they are able to rise above their apprehensions of other peoples’ judgment (Sparks 2). Both introverts and even extroverts can have a quality of shyness from time to time. In the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie stands alone by the wall of the gym at the homecoming dance. Charlie watches a group of students dancing and having a good time. The viewers see that Charlie desperately wants to join the students, but at first, he is too shy to do so. Charlie, an introvert, experiences moments of shyness from time to time, but those moments do not define his introvert personality, as many people would assume. In comparison to shyness, introverts are, actually, perfectly content with not getting involved in high social activities (“Quiet” 1). They long for and are most comfortable in their alone time. An introvert at the homecoming dance would probably much rather go home and curl up with a good book or spend time with one or two friends at a less overwhelming location. Even though Charlie would probably rather have been home than at the dance, he was able to get out of his comfort zone for a short amount of time (as many introverts are able to do), and he eventually left the gym wall and joined the dancing students.
One of the most common fallacies that extrovert-culture believes about introverts is that introverts are “anti-social.” Through the lenses of the “Extrovert Ideal,” a “social person” or a “normal person” is viewed as talkative, outspoken, quick to respond, and relaxed in front of an audience (Cain, Galagan 28). What the ideal fails to recognize is introverts are social, but they are social in multiple, different ways
Jill D. Burruss, a member of the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and Lisa Kaenzing, a doctorial student at the College of William and Mary explain, “Introverts get their energy from themselves and are drained by people; extraverts get their energy from other people and are drained by being alone” (2). Where an extrovert would thrive in large groups of people, introverts become too overwhelmed. To them, such situations are exhausting. Introverts socialize with other people; they just prefer to do so in smaller increments whether it is a controlled amount of time or simply a smaller number of people. In her TED Talk lecture, Susan Cain: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain talks about her family—a family of introverts. She explains that her family, when doing an activity together, would feel most content when each person was in the same room reading individually. Of course it does not sound like a “common” family night, but it shows that the social life of the introvert simply exists in a different light. Introverts tend to work best in one-on-one situations. The close relationship that an introvert has between one or two best friends provides them with a chance to verbalize their deepest thoughts and questions (Deresiewicz 8). It also can provide the introvert with new perspectives, ideas, and questions when the friend offers his or her genuine feedback.
What extroverts may not realize is that introverts are actually becoming “more social” (in regards to the extrovert culture social spectrum) due to the advancements made in technology over the past decade. This myth is followed by a similar assumption that says that introverts want to avoid giving their input (Behe 2). Introverts are using social media now more than ever to let their opinions and ideas be heard by a much larger audience—the World Wide Web (Behe 2; “Why Gadgets are Great for Introverts” 1). They want to be heard, but before now, they never felt they had convenient means of doing so. In an online conversation, people usually avoid petty small talk and they do not have to worry about social cues (“Why” 1). The introvert has a chance to develop their thoughts and opinions before they contribute online, and they finally have the ability to control when and where they are social (Behe 2; “Why” 1). It is becoming very common where a person is extremely introverted in person, but then becomes an extrovert when he or she is online (blogging, Tweeting, e-mailing, etc.) (“Why” 1). Both extroverts and introverts are beginning to realize that soft-spoken people can have highly influential voices in American society (2). Introverts should not feel ashamed to express themselves or give their opinions. Many believe introverts are more likely the ones wanting to escape from technology and social media so that they can have time to focus and regenerate their thoughts without constant distraction (Deresiewicz 7; Galagan 28). This statement still holds true, introverts do need time to themselves. However, when they do choose to interact at a small or large scale, more and more of America’s introverts are turning to technology.
Oftentimes, the extrovert ideal perceives solitude as loneliness. If extroverts are the “speakers” and introverts are the “thinkers,” then introverts need time to themselves to think, away from other people and other distractions, in order to develop thoughts and ideas that do not come with initial connections (Deresiewicz 6-7). Introverts do not think of their desire for solitude as loneliness; they perceive it as a necessity. William Deresiewicz, an editor for The American Scholar and now a novelist, explained self-thinking and its benefits in his lecture, “Solitude and Leadership: If You Want Others to Follow, Learn to be Alone with Your Thoughts":
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise...I need time to think about it...to make mistakes and recognize them. (6)
In solitude, the introvert’s personality traits work to their advantage and, in the long run, other peoples’ advantages when well-developed ideas become reality. Creative thoughts, like the profound, undying messages in classic literature, only come with time—hours, days, and sometimes (for many famous authors) years, of alone time (8). A person who is able to think on his or her own learns to avoid outside opinions and influences in order to form completely new directions and perspectives of thought. Deresiewicz drove his lecture point home by presenting solitude in relation to several introverts who helped shape America, “Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.”
What do Moses, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Gates, J.K. Rowling, and Steven Spielberg all have in common? All of them are leaders (Behe 1; “Quiet” 1; “Shyness” 2). They are leaders in their sciences, leaders of peaceful movements, leaders in their sports, and leaders in the literary, entertainment and business worlds. They are all leaders, and they are all introverts. The extrovert ideal is most commonly seen in the realm of leadership because leaders are usually chosen to reflect the culture they represent (McHugh 22). America values extroversion, so when looking for leaders, Americans, including both extroverts and introverts alike, almost always look for people with extrovert traits. The value of extroversion perfectly explains why American media places so much focus on the famous (Cain). Many television shows, even those aimed at child audiences, present main characters that are wealthy, have an unending number of friends, and are undoubtedly extroverts. Shows like American Idol and The Voice encourage that the preferred life is one in the spotlight. “Everyday” Americans audition on the shows in hopes of becoming famous and wealthy musical artists. Disney Channel’s Shake It Up presents two teen girls, Rocky Blue and CeCe Jones, who are high-energy, well-known dance stars on the TV show Shake It Up Chicago. Most shows and other American media sources like the Internet and print culture rely on one staple—extroverts are awesome. But, where do the introverted leaders fit in? Susan Cain, in her interview with National Public Radio, stated the contradictory theory in reference to the American thought process that, “the loudest ideas aren’t necessarily the best ideas” (3). A person may be an eloquent speaker and may have charisma in front of large groups, but how do his or her ideas and decisions hold up against reality? Was that “loud” idea thought about extensively or was it impulsive? A different type of leader who might not have the most “charming” impression on an audience, but who thinks about decisions before decisions are made must rise up—this leader is the introvert—a leader that America needs more of.
In most cases, introverted leaders place those who are being led before themselves as opposed to the extroverted leader who, more often than not, takes an egotistical, self-righteous view of leadership (Moore 1). William Deresiewicz addressed this in his lecture, “Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff” (7). Genuine leaders will consider ideas and make decisions that are right, even if they do not have the popular vote or if the thoughts and choices make people uncomfortable (5). When introverts lead, especially when leading motivated, goal-oriented workers, they listen intently to what their employees have to say and will work to put that idea into action (“Shyness” 4; Moore 2). Employees who propose ideas to extroverted “alpha dog” leaders may never see their ideas considered or put into action (“Quiet” 2). On the other hand, if the idea is used, extroverted leaders may slightly alter the concept to add their own twist.
Introverts should not have to pretend to be extroverted leaders. Leaders have the power to fight stereotypes and open peoples’ eyes to what other perspectives have to offer. A leader who leads as him or herself knows the true value of character and wants to lead followers by example (McHugh 24). If leaders lead as they truly are, then their followers will likely do the same. Introverts should not be afraid to step up for leadership positions that they rightfully deserve. If one introvert rises up to lead, then the hope is that other introverts will be willing to do the same in attempts to stop the skipping record—to put an end to the extrovert mindset—and create an equal-representative society one step at a time.
In connection to leadership, extrovert culture has made the “preferred” extrovert-minded modes of guiding children a major struggle for introverted parents. Prior to entering the education system, a majority of children learn first from their parents/guardians and other people they are surrounded and socialized by. Parents are teachers, yes, but they are also human and have varying personalities. Despite this fact, the role of “parent” in America is, like most other roles, advertised as a position to be taken on with the extrovert perspective (Beisner). Lisa Beisner, author of the Role/Reboot online-magazine article, “Why Introverts Fail at Attachment Parenting,” explains the struggle introverted parents have with the extrovert form of childcare. “Attachment parenting” requires both physical and emotional attentiveness to a child at all times. By definition, introverts need time alone whereas extroverts need attention. So, it makes sense that the concept of “attachment parenting” ultimately exhausts introverted parents while rejuvenating extroverted parents. As a parent herself, Beisner rightfully and personally responds that parents should remain as they are for the benefit and well being of themselves, their children, and the people around them. Embracing introversion in parenting is not self-seeking or “bad parenting;” introverted parents simply raise their children with different methods and at least a little bit more alone time. Beisner brings up a relevant comparison: “Look at it this way, when we discover that our children have special needs, we move heaven and earth to make the kind of accommodations that will allow them to thrive. Even if we decide that being an introvert handicaps us as a parent, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to make reasonable accommodations for ourselves so that we can thrive as parents.” If parents want what is best for their children, then parents should also transfer that benefit to their own lives as to lead by example. In that way, finally, both parties, parents and child, are pleased and those on the outside can learn.
In American schools today, it is not difficult to see whom the curricula and the physical classroom set-up are aimed towards—extroverts. Today’s curricula tend to focus on hands-on group activities, class participation, and how students present themselves before the class (Sparks 1). It seems as though those who create the curricula ignore the introvert perspective completely, possibly because they themselves are extroverts. Because teachers are required by state and national law to teach the curricula they are given, they have no choice but to fall into the extrovert funnel. Many times, teachers see introverted students as “problem” or “slower” students. The teacher may hold such assumptions if a student does not answer a question on the spot or if the student rarely participates in class at all. Such qualities in “quiet” students can lead teachers to believe that introverted students are less smart or that they just do not try hard enough. In reality, the student is just processing the question asked or he or she feels too overwhelmed or uncomfortable sharing in front of a group of peers. As explained earlier, introverts need time to think. If they are not given the time, then they will become discouraged and they themselves may begin to believe that they are academically inept. If they perceive themselves negatively as others perceive them, they may decide that trying hard is not worth it because they will be ignored.
A majority of the time, if teachers (and, many times, also parents) notice that one or several of their students seems “out of place” (i.e. not fitting the extrovert mold), they will attempt to get those students “out of their shells” (Cain). This phrase simply means: forcing introverts to become extroverts (Burruss and Kaenzig 4; Sparks 1). This is wrong; introverts, especially young students should learn to love themselves for who they are and not be forced to fit the norm. Teachers need to encourage students to be themselves. In the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie and his teacher, Mr. Anderson, eventually build a friendship. Mr. Anderson knows Charlie is an introvert, but he does not attempt to change him in any way. Instead, he encourages Charlie’s introvert personality and roots him on. Charlie is an avid reader (as many introverts are), so Mr. Anderson constantly offers Charlie books to read. Mr. Anderson understands. Can the rest of the American education system say the same? The perspective of the introvert must be accounted for in order to stop the extrovert obsession from continuing into future generations.
Classrooms need specific, separate time for solitude. Today’s education curriculum continues to require more and more group activities and projects, leaving very little time for individual concentration. Self-reliance does not exist in the classroom, or if it does, there is not enough time spent adequately teaching and encouraging it (Sparks 2). It is no wonder why so many students are not good test-takers. They are seldom educated on how to focus and think through a problem by themselves. Another problem introverts face is the extrovert-based physicality of a classroom set-up. Seating arrangements are commonly group oriented. Students may be together in a set of four students per group in desks that are crowded together and facing each other (“Shyness” 2). For introverts, such a setup is unnerving. Different workspaces should be offered to provide the best learning experience for each student (Moore 2). The same applies to the curricula as well: extrovert and introvert-focused activities should be integrated. Beginning in education, a blend of the extrovert personality and the introvert personality is necessary to keep America running on one of its most important values—equality.
Just as American schools have praised the extrovert state-of-mind, American workplaces have recently decided to jump on the same boat. Introvert and extrovert work tactics, unsurprisingly, are not the same, yet workplaces have decided to cater to the extrovert mentality (Cain). The push for working as a “team” at all times came from the 1980s and has continued to “thrive” in today’s workplace (Kahnweiler). Nearly every aspect of the modern workplace is dedicated to the “team” approach for anything from meetings to expressing new ideas. It is not a negative practice to bounce ideas off of other co-workers, but introverts need time to contemplate what they want to say. Introverts in the workplace are often forced to settle with speedy decision-making instead of having the time to think and then decide. Haste is very much attributed to fast technology and globalization, but when time is given, introverts can provide well thought-out ideas as oppose to just initial un-dwelled-upon ideas. Frequently, when introverts in the workplace do speak up and express an idea, an extrovert will speak over them and ultimately shut the introvert down. An introvert’s idea that could have saved the company may never come up in conversation again. When applying or interviewing for a job or college, people are often asked to brag about themselves and their accomplishments. Introverts usually tend to be more humble and are more uncomfortable sharing their successes with someone they are not fully acquainted with. Similar to the education system, workplaces also encourage physical workspaces to be arranged in groups instead of individual offices or cubicles. Such arrangements are unsuitable for those who concentrate best alone. In the workplace, an employee’s ability to consistently and effectively impact others and implement positive change is key. Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of the workplace-oriented self-help book Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference presses her motivation behind developing her opinion, “I have become convinced that introverts can be highly effective influencers when they stop trying to act like extroverts and instead make the most of their natural, quiet strengths.” In essence, as ironic as it sounds, introverts must hypothetically come together as a group to refute the idea of the current group-work focus. Introverts must be considered for current and future business success.
Today, American culture wrongly places extroversion at center-stage, while introverts are forced to sacrifice their gifts to either conform to the preferred ideal or hide behind the curtain. Spoiler alert: Charlie never becomes an extrovert. Throughout The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie learns about himself, the introvert. He learns that he puts his thoughts best on a page as a writer enjoying solitude. He learns that socializing with a small group of friends is valuable—that some friends can change your life. He learns that no matter who he is or what personality he has, he can define a moment of feeling completely infinite and free from judgment—This is the ideal America.
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