You know the kid in your CC seminar who rarely talks in class? The one who sits toward the front and seems to be taking good notes, but just doesn’t speak up that often?
That kid is me. I am not doodling, nor am I wondering what hell is going on (except when I am), nor am I daydreaming about Milano sandwiches or alien invasions. I am an introvert. I come in peace.
Introverts, as defined by the Myers-Briggs scale, feel most stimulated by solitary reflection, enjoy spending time alone or in small groups, and usually take time to think before they speak or act. A third to half of the population of the United States identifies as introverted, a percentage that includes a slew of unexpected figures from Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt to Al Gore and Larry Page. So while up to half of us do not respond optimally to the social stimulation that fuels extraverts, American institutions cater to extraverts across the board—and at a competitive school like Columbia, the “need” to be outspoken is perhaps even more pronounced. The failure to recognize and accommodate more reserved personality types, both in and out of the classroom, is a detriment not only to introverts but also to the larger community that neglects our potential contributions.
In academic courses at Columbia, professors place a value on extraversion from the start. As Susan Cain remarked in her 2012 TED talk, “The Power of Introverts,” the majority of professors feel that the ideal student is an extravert (even though, she added with a grin, introverts usually get better grades). Participation in class—whether in a small seminar or a section attached to a larger lecture—often counts for up to a quarter of our marks. The emphasis on class participation is not unfounded: Clearly, a healthy discussion engages students and illuminates important aspects of the material. But demanding that Columbia students make oral contributions to class is like insisting that a gaggle of 12-year-old girls attend a Justin Bieber concert—we’re going to do it, regardless of whether you want us to or not. In fact, mandatory participation counting for more than, say, five percent of a grade only exacerbates the pressure placed on more timid students. We feel stressed to operate against our natural tendencies, forced to compete with extraverts who effortlessly project each new thought that comes to mind. Naturally outspoken students seem to view class participation as an easy grade-booster and increase their dominance of the discussion, while introverts—for whom, I would think, the mandatory participation was intended in the first place—struggle to keep up.
The quieter Columbians face the same issues in academic groups or clubs, and literature on personality types indicates that we will continue to feel stressed and slighted in the workplace. Researchers at Harvard and UNC, for example, found that while half of the general population identifies as more introverted, over 90 percent of those who achieve management and higher-level positions in the workplace are extraverts. But this doesn’t mean that they’re smarter or more qualified. Introverts score just as highly on measures of intelligence and are equally capable of social engagement. At Columbia, participation in clubs and other activities can be frustrating for those who are less loud-and-proud by nature. It’s easy to feel overlooked and, I would imagine, to overlook—especially in settings where peers judge us almost exclusively on our vocal contributions. Quite naturally, more outgoing students nearly always take the reins, in groups ranging from fraternities to literary societies to service organizations. While it makes sense to place value on extraversion and confidence in a club setting (after all, the purpose of a club is to engage with others regarding a common interest), I’d offer that the loudest leader is not necessarily the best one. We should work to involve more introverted students at a higher level in our campus groups. If we support their participation in an innovative and inclusive way, they will more than likely step up to the plate with fresh perspective and good ideas.
Will our institutions ever recognize the potential power of the introvert? How can we distinguish between the engaged-but-quiet student and the one who is genuinely zoned out? To start, we should eliminate grade-dependent class participation and encourage introverted students to take responsibility as leaders in ways that do not make them feel like their tendency to listen and reflect is a negative quality.
Introversion is not simply shyness, and it is not a symptom of any problem, despite what our society seems to believe. It’s time to embrace our introverts as the thoughtful, intelligent leaders they have the potential to be.
Caitlin Brown is a Columbia College senior majoring in psychology and comparative literature and society. Pick My Brain runs alternate Tuesdays.