Dear Media: Stop Conflating Shyness and Introversion, Please

This is definitely a “this is making me irrationally angry” moment, but still: The Atlantic, a magazine and website I generally respect (though don’t always agree with), posted a brief, silly, throwaway article called “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” Possibly the most offensive thing about it is how ridiculous and uninformed it is, considering the author can’t be bothered to understand the differences between shyness, social anxiety, and introversion. What’s entirely missing, in this discussion, is the difference between choosing not to say something and being afraid of saying something. The author assumes introversion is the latter. Probably not coincidentally, the author identifies as an extrovert.

I was shy as a kid, so I get the anxiety thing. In general I dislike public speaking and don’t like being the center of attention. But when I say I’m introverted that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that I spend my evenings not in a bar but at home with a book, that I like being alone for extended periods of time, that I like writing more than speaking because it gives me time to formulate my thoughts better. When I say that large gatherings — even of families — are exhausting, I don’t mean I’m afraid everyone in the room is negatively judging me. I just mean they suck energy out of me. It’s really as simple as that.

The reason this misunderstanding bothers me so much is that as a kid I began to think it was wrong to be quiet, wrong to not say anything if I didn’t have anything to say. Certainly, all through high school I tried to chase an ideal of the extroverted super-involved type A personality peer leader — even as I became more aware of my desire to just be left alone a lot of the time. It led to some dissonance, a sense that I was doing things wrong. I always felt guilty about craving alone time, as if that was synonymous with being antisocial.

So I resent articles like these that mix up shyness and social anxiety with introversion, even though they don’t necessarily all walk hand in hand, a dubious trifecta of social imperfections. Shyness is a problem, but introversion isn’t.

One sentence in the article is particularly telling: “Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.” That is exactly what people like me dislike most about this discussion. Why on earth should we open our mouths before we’ve turned on our brains? It’s that kind of verbal diarrhea that drives us most insane! And I find I do resent the implication that because we aren’t speaking we somehow aren’t thinking. Our thoughts are often vibrant and lively enough that we don’t need validation from peers, and don’t always need to share them. We can spend hours alone not because it means we don’t need to think but because it means we can think freely, without someone nagging us to say something.

So I find articles like this to be too facile, presenting introversion as a problem with a simple, almost stupidly obvious solution: Just start talking, silly! But the article betrays more ignorance than groundbreaking thought. Authors like this one — who is a teacher — would make more headway if they first accepted that sometimes silence is a choice, not a prison. Stop trying to cure us, extroverts. We’re not broken. We’re doing perfectly fine.

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4 thoughts on “Dear Media: Stop Conflating Shyness and Introversion, Please

  1. This makes me mad too! As an introvert, your second paragraph describes me perfectly. And the fact that this author even says “turn on their brains” shows how ignorant and presumptuous she is. As if everyone who isn’t speaking is just sitting there in dumb mental silence all the time. How incredibly insulting. Personally, I believe that there’s a lot of credence to the expression “still waters run deep,” and that many talkative people would do well to think a bit more before they speak.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      Well said, Annie! I’ve been in a lot of situations where people are talking and talking and nothing is being said, but at the end of the meeting everyone pats themselves on the back for being so productive. Speaking should be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

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