Monday, January 30, 2012

The Fetishization of Introversion

I'm an introvert. I am. I can go for days on end just hanging out with my husband, our three cats and two turtles. I tend to often find myself on the fringes of things, tend to be preoccupied with my inner world and generally need a lot of time to recharge. At the same time, whenever I try to join an online Introversion-themed message board or community, I invariably quit in annoyance after a short period of time. One reason for this is the fetishization of introversion. Despite all the information out there about how society "misunderstands" introverts, if you comb the net, you can find considerably more images, articles and sites painting introverts in a favorable way. Introverts enjoy a special mystique, and dare I say, a claimed superiority, over extraverts. More than that, by wearing the banner of "misunderstood" so proudly, there is often an accompanying claim to special treatment with a corresponding disdain for those "obnoxious" extraverts.

Yet, often, attributes of introversion belong to some other preference (Judging, Feeling, etc), or are psychopathological rather than personality-based, or are universal traits that most people have. So, in no specific order, here is my list of Introvert Myths:

Myths About Introversion and Extraversion

(1)Introverts Can't Speak Up in Class

This one gets tossed around a lot. I've even had students gripe about participation requirements on the grounds of introversion, seemingly unaware that the professor that was in front of them, lecturing three hours a week was at least as introverted as they were. The fact is, one's willingness to speak up tends to be a mix of confidence, interest in the subject matter and perceived level of knowledge relative to one's classmates. Introverts can speak up in class, they can give presentations at conferences, they can teach a room full of students. They may wear out more easily than their Extravert peers and they may be slightly less in their element, but they can do it, even enjoy it. If you absolutely can't speak in front of your peers, your problem isn't introversion--it's social anxiety.

(2)"I'm an introvert, so I can't work with people."

I've heard this said a lot: claims that, due to one's introversion, they ought not have to deal with people in any regard--they can't work one on one with clients, they can't hold phone jobs, they can't do anything except back room research. Again, plenty of introverts do these things, and some get enjoyment out of them. An introvert might not be happy with a job that required constant social interaction, such as high pressure sales or managing a popular nightclub, but that doesn't mean they can't work as therapists, telephone interviewers, librarians, or any other job that often causes one to come into contact with people. There are, of course, reasons why a person might not enjoy such jobs: sometimes, customers are just demanding and difficult, which can be stressful for many people. Feeling types might not like a job where people are constantly calling up and screaming at them (tech support, for example). Thinking types might not like a job where they have to deal too much with other people's feelings and needs. Of course, the biggest reason someone might find it hard to deal with people is Social Anxiety or Avoidant Personality Disorder. (In fact, preferring jobs that don't require a lot of contact with others is a characteristic of Avoidant PD.) If you dislike working with people because you're afraid of being judged or criticized, it's Social Anxiety Disorder or Avoidant PD, not Introversion.

(3)"I'm an Introvert So Don't Embarrass Me or Criticize Me Publicly."

Really? As opposed to what? There are Extraverts that absolutely love to be humiliated or criticized in front of their peers? No one enjoys this. What on Earth would make anyone think this was a trait unique to Introverts?

(4)"I'm an Introvert, so I Can't Stand Crowds."

Actually, when it comes down to it, no one likes crowds. Put an Extravert in a crowded airport security line or at the mall on Christmas Eve, and many will get just as cranky as any introvert. An Extravert is more energized by the outer world of people and things, so they may be able to endure an annoying crowd better than an introvert if, for example, a band they really like is playing a crowded concert hall. They may be more productive working in a coffeehouse than in a home office. Most people, though, will get irritated and edgy if the crowd is big enough, loud enough or pushy enough.

(5)Introverts are Disadvantaged by Society, so it's the Extravert's Job to Understand Them.

Actually, that cuts both ways: sure, some Extraverts could stand to better understand Introverts, but Introverts need to do their fair share to understand Extraverts, too. Much of this stems from the idea that school and the work force prefer Extraversion. What that translates into is that sometimes Introverts are expected to do Extraverted things, but overlooks the fact that Extraverts are expected to do Introverted things as well. Listed in the MBTI Manual(Myers et. al, 2003) this is the break down of preference by gender, according to a national sample:

For Males:

Extraversion: 45.9%
Introversion: 54.1%
Sensing: 71.7%
Thinking: 56.5%
Feeling: 43.5%
Judging: 52%

So, as you could see, the most common preference for males is ISTJ. Extraversion is actually slightly less common among men than Introversion.

For Women:

Extraversion: 52.5%
Introversion: 47.5%
Sensing: 74.9%
Intuition: 25.1%
Thinking: 24.5%
Feeling: 75.5%
Judging: 56.2%
Perceiving: 43.8%

When categorized by type, ISFJ and ESFJ were the most common types for women. Women have a decided preference for Feeling, but there are only slightly more Extraverted women than Introverted women. Across both genders, there is a slight preference for Judging and a marked preference for Sensing. So, if we were to say more preferred types ought to try to understand less preferred types, it would be across SJ/NP lines, not Introversion and Extraversion. In other words, an ISFJ woman would more closely reflect the cultural norm than an ENTP of either gender. However, obviously, typology is only helpful if understanding cuts both ways, so how about we abandon this "misunderstood introvert" mythos altogether, shall we?