“Too quiet”, “needs to speak up more”, “learn to contribute more actively in class discussions” — these phrases peppered my primary school report books year after year, inculcating in then-12-year-old me that something was problematic with not being talkative in groups.
For years, I struggled to figure out what was wrong. It was just not in my nature to confidently volunteer my thoughts in front of a crowd, or cheerfully banter with groups of people I was unfamiliar with. And it was the same for the other quieter people in class, who preferred to talk more in smaller, more familiar groups.
Since young, we are taught that the ideal classroom setting is one that is lively with active discussions and that we should be judged as a person based on how much we verbally contribute or how sociable we are. This is not only limited to schools — workplaces, and just about in every other aspect of our lives as well.
This led me on a quest to discover why some people seem to be more comfortable with socialising, while others are more reserved. And a lot became clear once I discovered a particular concept: the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
Introversion as a personality trait
You have probably heard of the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” before. Introverts recharge their energy by being in solitude, while extroverts are energised by social interactions, hence introverts can come across as quieter and more soft-spoken people.
Personality tests can show where we fall on the spectrum, and perhaps the most famous one is the Myers-Briggs test, which categorises us into 16 personality types, including our inclination towards either introversion or extroversion.
Contrary to popular belief, introversion is not the same as being shy. While shy people are mostly introverts, they can also be extroverts with social anxiety. On the other hand, introverts can be socially adept but have a preference for solitude.
In social situations like classes, work meetings, or gatherings, introverts may speak up less quickly as they are more thoughtful in understanding ideas and take more time to process information than extroverts. They feel more comfortable listening than speaking, often think before they speak, and only speak when they have something to say.
The extrovert ideal
However, today’s societies often favour extroversion as a more prized trait, despite there being roughly half of our population who are naturally introverted.
According to Susan Cain in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the extrovert ideal is an “omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight” — in short, it is admirable to be someone who is comfortable putting ourselves out there. Talkative people are perceived as “smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends.”
Our society designs extroverts as the ideal: the more we speak up, the better. Leaders are seen as charismatic, verbal people with the capability to hold the attention of a crowd with their gift of the gab. This has led to many people pretending to or forcing themselves to be extroverts even when they are not.
Furthermore, fast talkers are ranked as “more competent and likeable” as they seem more on the ball and are better at small talk. This puts introverts at a disadvantage in fast-paced social situations such as work meetings, where they can take too long to formulate their opinions before sharing them. This is despite Susan Cain’s claim that there is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas — yet we have been conditioned to idealise extroversion.
Rethinking how we perceive introverts
Granted, there is value in expressing one’s ideas confidently in a verbal manner. If you do not speak up, no one will know what you are thinking as no one can read your mind. Letting your thoughts be heard can be valuable in showing your presence and demonstrating your ability to quickly understand the issue at hand.
However, verbal contribution should not be the only metric by which we judge a person’s capabilities. If anything, it is a shallow and superficial method to evaluate someone when there are so many other ways that people can contribute.
For instance, introverts may be quiet at meetings but are more involved in critical thinking, and so they take away more valuable ideas which are then invested into their work outside of the meetings that contribute to the same agenda.
Schools and workplaces today place great value on social interactions. As students, we are often put into groups to work on projects together — our graded class presentations and the oft-dreaded class participation component solidify the belief that social prowess is indicative of ability. As employees, we are expected to have impeccable “people skills” and be able to sell ourselves and our ideas well verbally to others. But not everyone is made for such social environments. Even worse, the value of quieter, ‘behind-the-scenes’ hard work can be overlooked in our pursuit of the extrovert ideal.
There is no such thing as “too quiet”
Looking back, sometimes I do wish my primary school teachers had understood the merits of being introverted and provided us, the quieter students, with support more suited to our learning needs. However, I am hopeful that over time, we as a society can learn to recognise these quiet contributions more.
The world is made up of as many extroverts as there are introverts, and it is time we learn how essential it is to embrace that diversity. Introverts and extroverts can balance each other out nicely, and it is up to us to build a world where both can complement each other’s abilities best.