“You’re an introvert?” I responded with shock and surprise whilst having dinner with two of my good friends. They were the type of people I would have described as outgoing, sociable in big groups, and intently engaged when there is company. I confidently assumed that they would feel energised in a stimulating social environment, rather than being alone.
As a disclaimer, I am an extrovert, and I think I could easily tell you who my extroverted friends are. Yet, it dawned upon me that I did not know many people who openly and willingly proclaimed themselves as introverts unless prompted. This got me thinking: why did I act so confused that my friends were introverts? Did I even implicitly see extroverts as superior?
One of the most common misconceptions of introverts (which I subconsciously held) is that they’re reserved and are not usually outgoing in social situations. In her book Quiet, the leading academic Susan Cain defines an introvert as someone who prefers a “quieter, more minimally stimulating environment.” Introverts definitely feel comfortable in solitude, as it allows them to recharge their energy, whilst extroverts require stimulation, which produces energy for them — but it’s not about how energetic you are, but where you get your energy from.
In fact, the traits of introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum, and very few people are ever extreme introverts — quiet and antisocial — or extroverts — very loud and rely heavily on social interaction. However, popular culture portrays these labels as a strict binary. The introverts are the studious, lonely and quiet Sheldon Coopers, Alex Dunphys and Rory Gilmores of the world, while the extroverts tend to be the popular and outgoing characters like Blair Wardolf, Phoebe Buffay and Michael Scott. However, in reality, introverts are not confined to these stereotypes. A range of celebrities, such as Emma Watson, Bill Gates, Meryl Steep and Barack Obama all identify as introverts. The binary ignores that many people can be found somewhere around the centre (as an “ambivert”), and that people can identify as an outgoing introvert or a more reserved extrovert.
The spectrum challenges the stereotype that all introverts have a fear of social judgment. Shyness is not synonymous with an individual preferring to work independently or be in solitude. Introverts can still enjoy being surrounded by others, and have the same ease as extroverts when it comes to high-intensity social situations, and this does not make them any less of an introvert.
At the end of the day, introverts value their time in a more minimally stimulating environment to feel grounded. It helps them be more creative and reflective, giving themselves time to ponder and be comfortable with just themselves. According to Susan Cain’s Quiet, an estimated 50% of Americans identify as being introverted — and according to an informal poll I conducted, up to 49% of my friends on Instagram would too, many of whom I would not have identified as introverts based on their personality. This is exactly why I think the introvert-extrovert spectrum is an incredible tool to understand people. It celebrates that people gain their energy in different ways, through solitude or company, and within varying degrees.
Ultimately, we live in a society where we are constantly stimulated. As students, we are regularly pushed to demonstrate extroverted traits, such as being awarded participation marks. Introverted traits are considered less valuable in society, which further the undesirable characterisation of introverts — for example, that they can’t be inspiring leaders, popular entertainers or decisive characters. The stereotype we have around introverts is narrow and harmful, because it fails to value the power of being in a quieter, calmer environment. Having friends who gain energy in different ways and value solitude creates the very traits of reflection and creativity that makes them interesting and fun to hang out with. I hope that more people will appreciate and value the importance of introversion for themselves and others.