“She’s just not a very engaging person.”
So spake Lesley M. on a recent episode of The Bachelor, explaining why all the “ladies” disliked this season’s resident villainess, the unfortunately named Tierra. I didn’t watch enough of this, the 17th and most dramatic season ever, to offer a more compelling reason for the mansion-wide disdain Tierra inspired, but this explanation bothered me more, even, than any of the catty confessionals, unnecessarily smacky kisses, or rubbery mascara excesses that featured in the first five hours of the episode. Whatever the girl’s real faults—she’s not engaging enough?
Setting aside the obvious pun in this context (which does deserve a good chuckle), I can’t help but bristle at the implication that just not being a big enough personality is reason to deserve judgey looks from a bunch of 24-year-olds who thought it was a good idea to go on The Bachelor. The Extrovert Bias raises its ugly head again, and on a lame-ass reality TV show, natch.
And the part that really gets under my skin is that the Extrovert Bias extends far beyond TV with a target audience whose mental faculties are fueled by Baked Lays and Diet Coke.* The Extrovert Bias is everywhere, as explored by Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (which I believe should be required reading for everyone on Earth ever). Cain calls it the Extrovert Ideal, and explains it as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight…We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual—the kind whoʼs comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’”
This makes me want to leap from my seat and holler “YES! YES!” at whoever happens to be passing by, despite its extroverted overtones. Susan Cain has summed up one of the chief frustrations of my life in a single paragraph, folks. Mad writerly respect.
If it weren’t obvious by now, I’m an introvert (my Myers-Briggs type is INFJ, for those who are as obsessed as I am with the scary accuracy of these personality types). I don’t feel that the label “introvert” gets quite as much flack as it used to, though some people do still respond to the statement “I’m an introvert” in the same reassuring tone they reserve for someone who’s just said they’ll be fat and alone for the rest of their lives. But I do feel that the work style, social attitude, and general demeanor of the introvert are a long way from being appreciated or even recognized. They are still seen as weaknesses, flaws, things to “work on.”
Being an introvert or an extrovert really comes down to a fundamental difference in energy exchange: an introvert burns up energy during social interactions and recharges by being alone, while an extrovert’s energy weakens during alone time and is refueled by social and sensory stimulation. It’s not a choice or a preference—it’s a difference in brain chemistry that actually makes introverts function better in calmer, less stimulating environments. Introverts are even physically sensitive to sensory stimuli: they tend to sweat and salivate more easily, and as babies, they’re more likely to cry in response to loud noises or sudden disturbances. (Seriously, read Quiet.)
I like to explain it by describing the feeling I always have when I’m in the midst of a party or other event where I’m interacting with a lot of people. I might be having a great time and getting along famously, but I’m always consciously looking forward to the quiet, alone time that awaits me at home afterward. This doesn’t make me antisocial or timid or boring. It just means I’m an introvert.
And like many others of my introvert brethren, I am a person who likes to be left alone when I work. Open office plans and brainstorming meetings kill my productive buzz. I like to think and process information before I speak. I suck at small talk, but I love getting into deep, inspired conversations about the nature of the universe or the subtext of Walter White’s wardrobe. I would rather have (and do have) a few very close friendships than a large circle of friends. Yet I’m comfortable speaking in front of a crowd (with adequate time to prepare), have natural leadership leanings (I am the oldest child, after all), and love adventurous traveling (as long as it doesn’t involve group ice-breakers).
The basic preference for extroverts in our society makes sense: we prefer those who prefer being with us. But it turns out that we don’t just prefer extroverts in a social or interpersonal context—we actually consider them smarter and more competent. Research cited by Susan Cain has shown, for example, that people rank fast talkers as more intelligent than slow talkers, and louder talkers in group settings as more competent than quieter participants, even though there is of course no statistical correlation between a person’s vocal volume or pace of speech and the quality of his or her ideas.
This is where I really get riled up. Are we a society so enamored of shiny objects that we automatically give more credit to whatever idea happens to catch our eye first, whatever noise happens to be loudest? Because the Loudest Person in the Room will always drown out even the most assertive introvert—and I refuse to accept that the extrovert’s ideas (whether or not they’re any good) will always be accepted and adopted before the introvert has a chance to process information, simply because the extrovert is louder and more apt to “think by speaking” (per this stellar 2003 article in The Atlantic).
We can do so, so much better.
It seems to me that if we understood, really understood, that people have different inherent ways of experiencing and reacting to life—if we appreciated both the engaging personalities and the quieter perspectives—we’d live in a much more interesting, much less predictable world. One in which the Tierras among us might actually be accepted—or at least rejected for their real faults.
As for that much-maligned Bachelor contestant, well, I suspect it’s something much more troubling than introversion that plagues her “journey.” Dare I say, she’s not there for The Right Reasons?
*Yeah, I watch it too. But I direct your attention to the Cult of The Bachelor, a nationwide community of educated women (and men) who appreciate the hilarity of romance engineered for a mass audience. See Kristen Baldwin’s EW recaps.
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