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Are introverts an oppressed group?

“Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”

The idea that people can be divided into two personality groups, introverts and extroverts, is not universally accepted, but it’s an interesting idea nevertheless — and, apparently, a popular one. One of The Atlantic magazine’s most-downloaded-and-talked-about essays in recent years is “Caring for Your Introvert,” written in 2003 by writer (and self-proclaimed introvert) Jonathan Rauch.

I have to say, as someone who leans toward introversion, I found that article both reassuring and amusing (although I’m not sure how scientific). Here’s Rauch’s description of the difference between introverts and extroverts:

Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say “Hell is other people at breakfast.” Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay — in small doses.”

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Second-class citizens?
And now there’s a new book on the topic, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by attorney-turned-writer Susan Cain. Like Rauch, Cain argues that our culture has an extroversion bias, which puts introverts at a distinct disadvantage. (Rauch used the word “oppressed.”)

Susan Cain
thepowerofintroverts.comSusan Cain

“Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts,” Cain said in a recent interview in Scientific American’s “Mind Matters” column. “Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”

Whoa. That seems like an unfortunate and hyperbolic analogy. For one thing (and how quickly we forget), women faced formal barriers to using their intellectual talent in the ‘50s — such as quotas on how many could be admitted to medical and law schools. I don’t see schools placing quotas on the number of introverts they admit. In fact, if, as Cain claims, introverts are able to concentrate more easily than extroverts, then they may have an advantage when it comes to succeeding at education.

Cain interested me more in the interview when she talked about the discoveries of evolutionary biologists that there are “introverts” and “extroverts” throughout the animal kingdom.

“Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson speculates that the two types evolved to use very different survival strategies,” she said. “Animal “introverts” stick to the sidelines and survive when predators come calling. Animal “extroverts” roam and explore, so they do better when food is scarce. The same is true (analogously speaking) of humans.”

You can read the full interview on the Scientific American website. And if you aren’t sure whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can take Cain’s quiz here. (Caution: I have no idea how valid it is.)