When you’re an introvert living in Western culture, you’re surrounded by the “extrovert ideal.” To be healthy and happy in life, be the introvert you are anyway.
My classmate Andrea lived about half a mile away from me growing up, and our paths crossed routinely in our small hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, population 7,000 and change.
Our families attended the same church, for example, so Andrea and I went to Sunday school and confirmation together. We were in many of the same classes at regular school, too, all through our elementary, junior high, and senior high years.
We saw a lot of each other, not so much by design as by circumstance.
We weren’t friends per se—my definition of friends is “people who actually do things together”—but we were solid acquaintances. We certainly knew one another well enough to describe the other accurately to somebody else.
Andrea is a kind, caring person. A genuine soul. One of those not-a-mean-bone-in-her-body types.
So it was nice to reconnect with her a few years back when we ended up living in the same Minneapolis suburb and sending our kids to the same elementary school.
But one day, in the school parking lot, she surprised me.
Maybe “threw me for a loop” is a better way of putting it, though I know she didn’t mean to.
I mentioned to her that I had just finished writing my book The Introvert Manifesto, and that if I was honest about it, the book was in many ways about me and for me and giving voice to me personally because, I told her, “I’m a introvert.”
“You’re not an INtrovert!”
She said it with that worried emphasis—“INtrovert!”
Her reaction was an odd combination of shock and concern for my well-being.
It was just additional evidence that I had not only picked the right first essay for my book (“There’s Nothing Wrong with Me; I’m Just an Introvert”), but that Western culture really does fear introversion.
And it really does revere extroversion.
Western Culture Glorifies the Extrovert Ideal
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, calls this phenomenon the extrovert ideal:
“the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”
Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, refers to it as the extroversion assumption—the notion that:
“extroversion is normal and introversion is a deviation”
I simply call it the extroversion default: the idea that the “default” personality type in Western culture is, or ought to be, extroversion, and that we assess other personality variations against extroversion because it is implicitly or explicitly seen as the gold standard.
But is the extrovert ideal real?
Is there an extroversion assumption in Western society?
Is extroversion the default?
If you’re an introvert, you need to know—if you don’t already—that the answer is clearly …
The Synonyms Give It Away
If this is breaking news to you, I’m sorry.
If it’s old hat to you, consider yourself validated, which is something we all need once in a while.
If you often feel like a fish out of water simply by being your introverted self, well, you’re not alone.
We could prove the extrovert ideal/assumption/default in any number of ways, but I set out recently to back it up using data.
I went to the top six thesaurus websites on the Internet (all of which showed up within the first 20 results of my Google search) and looked up the terms introvert and extrovert (i.e., noun forms) and introverted and extroverted (i.e., adjective forms).
I wrote down the synonyms listed for each, then went through them all and—in an admittedly subjective process (though I stand by my judgments)—rated them as having a positive connotation, a negative one, or a neutral one.
What did I learn?
The Extrovert Ideal Is Indeed Real
Well, if you were to think of my analysis as a baseball game, the extrovert/extroversion side would win decisively, by a score of something like 11-2.
The extrovert/extroversion team dominates with a final tally of:
- 69 synonyms with positive connotations
- 17 with negative
- 13 neutral
The box score on introvert/introversion:
- 20 synonyms with positive connotations
- 85 with negative
- 35 neutral
So yes, the extrovert ideal is a real phenomenon. It’s simply what is in Western culture.
What can we do about it?
Well, a better question is: What should we do about it?
Be the Introvert You Are Anyway
We have four options:
1) Complain. Bitch and moan about the unfairness of it all.
It’s important to acknowledge the existence of the extrovert ideal/assumption/default. There’s a certain affirmation that comes with naming it and calling it out.
But complaining can’t and won’t empower you.
It will disempower you.
2) Become an extrovert (or try to). Beat the living extroversion into yourself; just be the extrovert you’re not.
That’s a recipe for clinical depression—or worse.
3) Start an introvert revolution. Cain especially, along with Helgoe and many others, are already on this task. Great! I’m all for it, and I see myself as being a part of it.
But revolutions take time.
And, more importantly, the typical revolution calls for a complete overthrow of the status quo, whereas the introvert revolution advocated by Cain et al. seeks only to even the playing field where introversion and extroversion are concerned.
As I myself write in The Introvert Manifesto:
“I’m only looking for a general balancing of the scales.”
A closer ballgame.
In other words, at best, we might strive for and someday get to a 50-50 world for introverts.
Realistically, though, we’re more likely to go from an 80-20 world to a 70-30 or 60-40.
So what’s your—our—best bet?
4) Just be you—be the introvert you are. Acknowledge yourself as a person who gravitates toward introversion; accept the culture you live in as one that may not (or may only rarely) lean introvert; and take care of your body, mind, soul, and actions accordingly.
No need to defend or justify yourself. No need to complain.
Perhaps simply the need to occasionally explain that you’re merely an introvert—not (gasp!) an INtrovert!
And that you choose to be real—and live your own way.