Last month, the world lost a great man with the death of Neil Armstrong. The first person to ever walk on the moon was, by all accounts, a very private man. Averse to giving interviews and making a spectacle of himself, he refused all forms of media attention in his later years. Though many reporters characterized Armstrong’s as “shy” in their memorials, his friends say he was very comfortable sharing his thoughts with others and had a very subtle sense of humour. Although Armstrong was an introvert, he definitely didn’t fit the classic idea of what an introvert is.
“I think the big misconception is that introverts don’t talk and are unable to foster and maintain relationships – this is inaccurate,” said Sara Colalillo, a McGill psychology graduate currently working on her Master’s degree in clinical psychology at University of British Columbia. “They are simply less bubbly and aren’t always vying to be the centre of attention. However, they do value trust and companionship and most definitely can form meaningful relationships.”
Contrary to what many may think, introversion puts Armstrong in very good company. Statistically, some estimates say 30 per cent of the world’s population can be considered introverted. As a group, they can also boast a great number of famous faces among their peers, including such luminaries as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Hillary Clinton and Rosa Parks. Even US President Barack Obama is an admitted introvert; he’s confessed to preferring time at home with his family to Washington parties.
As an introvert myself, I was often uncomfortable growing up. I never stood out at school and at home, my parents — who were both popular in high school — pressed me to be more proactive, seek out social groups, and participate in team sports. I preferred reading or walking through the woods near our house to socializing. The notion that this could be normal didn’t make sense to many people in my family. Luckily, the world is becoming a much more accepting place for people of my ilk.
Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts have helped foster an appreciation for the unique talents introverts bring to the table; and the Internet, rife with support groups and social tools, has made coping with an extroverted world much easier.
Yet despite all this, the world still sometimes feels like it belongs to the extroverted, with many workplaces and classrooms placing great emphasis on group activities and having an outgoing personality. Cain spoke at a TED conference last March on the subject, pointing out that “a vast majority of teachers report believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert — even though introverts actually get better grades and are more knowledgeable, according to research.”
The benefits of introversion aren’t limited to the classroom, either. According to a study performed by Professor Adam Grant at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, introverted leaders often foster better results than extroverted ones do. This happens because they are more likely to allow proactive employees to follow up on their own ideas rather than try to put their personal brand on them, as an extrovert might.
If you’re headed for Vegas, it turns out that you’re better off bringing your more reserved friends than a party animal — introverts are more conscious of risks, which make them better gamblers. They also make for great life partners, since introverts are much better listeners and are less likely to have an affair or change relationships.
Another lesson that we would be wise to remember is that vocal might does not make right.
“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” said Cain. Introverts naturally lend themselves to more in-depth thinking processes, which is a skill in itself. “They spend a lot of time thinking and being analytical, so in conversation they actually might have a lot to say,” said Colalillo. “They are insightful and can show you ways of looking at things that you may not have thought of otherwise.”
In any case, the introversion/extroversion dichotomy is not one that should elicit defensiveness from either party. Both sides have their share of work to do and both have their place in society. That being said, we introverts did get to the moon first. Your move, extroverts.
Graphic by Jennifer Kwan.