A Social Mask

The word “introversion” has experienced a heroic transformation in connotation since its genesis. From its objective definition of “turning inwards,” the word has gone to imply shyness, social awkwardness, and friendlessness before finally rising from its oppression and inspiring introverts to recognize their own power. It’s interesting to see the harrowing journey that this word undertook, as its connotations have fluctuated several times.

Before gettin’ all weird, I should probably define “introversion”. Carl Jung introduced this term in the 20th century as part of his schema to identify personality types. He coined the terms “introversion” and “extroversion” to mean “turn inwards” and “turn outwards” respectively as means to gauge people’s preferences for where they get their energy. According to the Myers Briggs Foundation, each preference usually has “symptoms,” or a set of resulting behaviors and ideals. To turn inwards suggests that an introvert is one who prefers energizing through introspection and to turn outwards similarly implies that an extrovert does so through social interaction.

Being Outcast

After its conception (and rather laconic definition), it seemed that people had reservations about introversion and introverts themselves. Generally, people tended to view introversion negatively, as the idea of making small talk and spending time with other people reflected highly (especially in Western society). The 1956 production My Fair Lady exemplifies this idea; one particular scene in the movie involves speech trainer Henry Higgins teaching lower-class flower girl Eliza Doolittle to properly make small talk to blend in with upper class guests. Just as expected, the farcical scene goes awry as Eliza ends up speaking about her aunt’s death and her father’s drinking problem to the shock and amusement of her uptight guests.

Using this as an allegory, it’s interesting to note that most people don’t want to know about such personal details. The certificate of any introvert is his/her disdain for small talk, stemming from his/her dislike for the walls that small talk creates between people. Preventing personal conversations completely supports this idea. Knowing this, it’s certainly interesting that small talk in 1950s England served as a ticket to the lavish upper class. Introverts would not have met the standard and thus would most likely be ostracized for what would have been considered antisocial behavior at the time.

What’s key to note here is that negative connotations didn’t immediately attach themselves to the word “introversion” itself; rather, they attached themselves to an idea that introversion represents. Those incapable of small talk were deemed more unfit for social situations than their more people-oriented counterparts. By proxy, the derision directed towards the anti-small-talkers eventually made its way up the chain to introverts themselves. In a mere matter of time, introverts were already considered social pariahs and forced to change. Such a natural sociological phenomenon begs the question: why is introversion regarded with such disparagement?

Are they your type? Do you guys have chemistry?

Before answering this, we must keep in mind that introversion and extroversion, rather than being a learned trait, is determined chemically. Scientists have researched how self-identified introverts and extroverts respond to various stimuli, and the answer seems to lie in our neurochemistry. Dopamine, one of the brain’s pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, is known to be more active in extroverts than introverts. They receive bursts of this reward drug upon completing social activities such as attending concerts and speaking at meetings whereas an introvert will begin to tire in these circumstances. Introverts don’t receive as much dopamine as extroverts do, but their preferred neurotransmitter is acetylcholine, a similar pleasure-inducing drug that activates upon introspection. Given this, it’s easy to see the biological differences between the two types.

None of this is to say that introverts cannot enjoy people and extroverts don’t enjoy their alone time: what’s important to note is each type’s preference. Introverts don’t “hate” people or talking, they just prefer meaningful conversation and personal connection. Similarly, extroverts don’t hate thinking or reflecting; rather, they do so by using other people as a sounding board off which they can form their ideas.

Back to why society hates introverts. Much of the reason that extroverts are held in higher esteem starts during childhood. Susan Cain, author of the 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking explains that many aspects of Western culture perpetuate negative implications of introversion through its tenuous connection to besmirched terms such as “shy” and “quiet” as well as through institution. For example, it’s no secret that quieter children are looked upon with misunderstanding and suspicion. Grown-ups love to remark upon such children using those two buzzwords: “He’s pretty shy, isn’t he?” or “Oh, isn’t she a quiet one?” While the word “introversion” hardly occurs in conversation about children, it’s often (inaccurately) associated with quietness and shyness, and by proxy, an introverted child becomes a shy, quiet one and vice-versa. Shyness indicates a fear of judgment and quietness really doesn’t mean anything. Introverts can occasionally be quiet not because they fear judgment from their peers but because overstimulation (like loud noises, meaningless conversation, and group assignments) literally mentally exhausts them. With their close friends, introverts are actually known to be very talkative and outgoing. They don’t hate socializing; they’re just picky about it.

The Wild, Wild West

However, Western education unknowingly supports differentiation through its education system. Cain theorizes that the large-classroom environment of most school systems, filled with noisy kids, overly stimulates the mind of introverts while allowing extroverts to flourish. As an introvert myself, I wholly agree. Students are often encouraged to discuss project ideas with the rest of their group rather than to go home and come up with something, and while it’s true that creativity can happen by bouncing ideas around, it more often occurs through deep introspection. Most of my best ideas and revelations have come from deep reflection and soul searching. From here, it’s no wonder that extroverts are seen as preferable—they succeed on their home turf. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy continued through vocabulary and stigma.

This sheds some light on, but doesn’t quite nail the question of why introverts face such scorn. To further our answer, we must look at the defining traits of Western society as a whole. And what better word to summarize our culture than capitalism.

I can confidently say that capitalism is responsible for multiple strains of identity issues in our society. Everything can be made into a business at the expense of quality. We make garbage movies with plenty of special effects to break box office records (I’m looking at you, Transformers). We compliment girls on their appearance rather than their intelligence because sex sells. We sell horrifying fast food because it’s easy, cheap, and tasty. And we tell our children to be outgoing and social and to make a lot of friends because in this realm of big business, we need magnetic, charismatic charmers who will excel in job interviews, meetings, pitches, and sales (seriously, just look at Wall Street). Capitalism breeds extroversion by brainwashing introverts into thinking that something is wrong with them, thereby sacrificing a contemplative contributor for yet another reluctantly gregarious go-getter.

Traveling Through Time

Looking at this capitalistic onset, it’s interesting to note how much our culture has changed from the past. Men of contemplation were once revered for their contributions to human morality. Centuries BCE, we had philosophers like Plato (“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something“) and Aristotle (“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”) who have been popularly theorized to be introverts explore ethics, people, and life. It’s interesting that the words introversion and extroversion weren’t conceived back then, but if they were, it seems as though introversion would not have the same stigma then than it does today.

We can clearly see that the opinions about the introspective thinker change to reflect current social standards. During the era of philosophy millennia ago, introversion would be revered, aligning closely with contemplation and insight, but towards the 20th century, introversion is cast aside and realigned with the more diminutive terms shy and quiet. Obviously, we have no idea whether ancient philosophers would identify as introverts, as the term is a very recent one, but based on their writings, it’s speculated that many were, in fact, introverted by nature.

In modern America, things are different. Both extroverts and introverts themselves are beginning to understand the quiet power that introverts have, thanks to authors like Susan Cain. This modern awareness reflects the growing introvert-friendly lifestyle that technology has afforded us with solitary activities emerging in addition to interpersonal leisure activities of the past. Watching prime time television with your family has turned into streaming shows directly from Netflix; going to a library to check out a book is as easy as downloading a new story onto your Kindle; video games nearly perfectly replicate real life with beautifully designed open worlds and online multiplayer.

Introverts are quite the character

Popular culture’s change supports introversion’s triumphant trajectory as well. Heavy dialogue and action sequences dominated popular movies with no room for silent characters other than the brooding villain. Acclaimed movies like 12 Angry Men, featuring a moral play through constant dialogue, embody the personality of the extrovert. Profitable franchises like James Bond and The Godfather, each featuring a revolving door of characters, shine through their evocative dialogue and well-executed action.

Nowadays, movies not only structurally reflect the preferences of an introvert but also star more introverted characters. Works like The Perks of Being a Wallflower shine not through a large cast but through the internal struggle of its main character through sparse dialogue with his new friends. Boyhood, a twelve year production by Richard Linklater, perhaps best exemplifies this by following the small cast of a single family over time, tracking changes in a very thoughtful, introverted young boy as he grows up in instability.

None of this is to say that only introverts can enjoy such films; rather, it means that popular culture has grown to include both extroverts and introverts in its bubble. However, although we’ve made progress, remnants of the past remain. The definition of the word according to the Cambridge Dictionary (editing in 2016, mind you) is “someone who is shy, quiet, and unable to make friends easily.” The dictionary displays related words including “inadequacy,” “inhibition,” and even an “aw shucks,” whereas related words for extrovert include “alive,” “go-getter,” and “high-spirited.”

On the flip side, while one portion of the population is unsure that introverts aren’t necessary shy or anxious, another portion romanticizes the word greatly. With “news” websites like Buzzfeed publishing several articles about introverts, it’s almost becoming popular to turn inwards.

The stark contrast between Cambridge’s definition of “introvert” and social media’s worship of the term demonstrates that the word is at a tipping point. Similar to socially forceful terms like feminism and transgender (but clearly to a much lesser extent), introvert has slowly become contested, enduring the gauntlet of both scrutiny and martyrdom to make a name for itself. During this turbulent time of lexical natural selection, when people are inclined to take sides, it’s tempting to turn against one another rather than turn inwards or outwards. Regardless of this conflict, I, along with the other introverts of the world, look forward to the aftermath of this definition. We’ll patiently be reading sci-fi novels in the meantime.


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