Introversion: Pro-Idea, Anti-Noise, or Something Else?


Over the past few years I have heard much discussion of introversion and extraversion but little agreement about what they are. In fact, I have seen multiple implicit definitions of introversion within the same article or discussion.

It would not matter much, except that people in power are starting to say, “introverts are this,” “introverts are that,” “introverts need this,” “introverts need that.” Interior designers, engineers, and consultants have been creating “Quiet Spaces” in workplaces. Schools have undergone training to become more introvert-friendly. These initiatives may hold some good but need vigorous (and rigorous) questioning.

Definitions, by definition, make all the difference. It makes little sense to discuss what has been discovered about introverts, unless you mean something specific by the term “introvert.” State your initial definition, explain why you have chosen it over other possibilities, and proceed from there.

In a 2014 article in Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman gives a sampling of the many floating definitions of introversion. They run the gamut and then some. He then reveals that psychologists have put forth a model of four types of introversion: social (where you like to be alone or spend time with a few close friends), thinking (where you pay close and continual attention to your own thoughts and feelings), anxious (characterized by self-consciousness and shyness), and restrained (where you tend to think before you act). He then offers a quiz to help you find out which kind you are.

Even there, I see many complications (which he acknowledges as well). To be a “thinking” introvert, must one primarily be interested in one’s own thoughts and feelings, or can one be absorbed in thinking about something else, such as music, a language, or a mathematical problem? The quiz presumes the former, but I object.

As for the other types, when I look at the questions, my response is often, “It depends.” The ambiguity does not bother me; I don’t feel a need to narrow myself down by type and subtype (on other people’s terms). But others are busy doing just that—not for me in particular, but for “introverts” at large.

So, for instance, “Quiet Spaces,” envisioned and designed by Susan Cain and others, exist to give introverts an environment that brings out their best. The intent here is good but the execution narrow. I would not want to work in one, and in this I am not alone. I don’t like the lounge-y feel, the glass walls all around (frosted, but still), the lack of bookshelves, or the colors. Give me a good old office with solid walls, a windowed door, an actual desk, a window to the outside, and plenty of shelves. Or, if space is lacking, just give me a cubicle and some quiet. Again, I see the good intentions but question the assumptions and aesthetic choices.

Nor can a workplace accommodate everyone. I am skeptical of attempts to identify employees’ personality types and tailor workplaces to them. Instead, find the structures that suit the situation at hand. Where the work calls for thinking, make room for it. Where it calls for discussion, create forums. Allow people to work alone, coming together when necessary. Also, let them treat the job as a job, not as an all-consuming career (unless they really want the latter). That way, they can pursue their interests in their own time.

What about schools? Attempts to create introvert-friendly classrooms may also rely on false or skewed assumptions. Some assume that introverts dread speaking to the whole class and prefer speaking to a partner (e.g., in a “think-pair-share” activity); this is not necessarily true, though it may be true for some. Sone count unequivocally as introverts yet thrive in class discussion, precisely because it is about something interesting. Sone dread the “think-pair-share” activity because of its “buzz” (so many people talking at once) and its tendency to water down the ideas before they reach the full forum.

Here too, one can reach students by paying attention to the subject matter. When the point of class discussion is to reach greater understanding (about a work of literature, a mathematical concept, or a philosophical idea), students may sit quietly and think, venture a tentative idea, or offer an insight. All of this contributes to the understanding. Lessons themselves can vary. One lesson might consist primarily of lecture, another of whole-class discussion, and another of a combination (or something different). In each case, students may participate in a variety of ways.

And what about the world outside of work and school? Here again, beware of constricting generalizations. I just read an article titled “Introverts Love Facebook, and Extroverts Hate It. Here’s Why.”How does the author justify such an assertion? Here we go:

Everything about Facebook serves the emotional and psychological needs of introverts. It gives them a place to socialize and chat with people they like, without having to deal with the elements of in-person dialogues that make them uncomfortable. It allows them to say their piece, without being interrupted, scowled at, or patronized.

What? Who says introverts are uncomfortable with in-person dialogues? There are those who vastly and vehemently prefer such dialogues to the groupy, chatty, like-y, Facebook-y stuff. I myself dislike Facebook precisely because it’s so social (in Hannah Arendt’s sense of the word). Unless you have a private chat, which tightens you with its tiny windows and bubbles, you have to accept group conversations,  which aren’t even conversations. I recognize the efficiency of Facebook (it helps you stay in touch with many people at once), but it can’t hold a candle to a letter, phone conversation, or conversation in person.

I resist the excessive tilt toward gregariousness, talk, quick answers, busyness, aggressiveness, and so forth. Yet I also resist the push to classify people, especially when the basic definitions are unclear. Personality research is fine, but those involved should acknowledge its questions and doubts, strive for precise language, and exercise caution around policy and products. It is sad to see “groupthink” arising around introversion, when introversion, like extraversion, holds so many variations and possibilities.


Note: I took the above photo at Anne Loftus Playground (around 8 a.m., before children and parents started arriving).

I revised this piece three times after posting it. Latest revision: October 26, 2017.

Elitism Versus Populism in Education

In a recent post (now deleted), I discussed what I saw as an anti-intellectual tendency in education. I gave only two examples and didn’t go into the complexities of the matter. (I later became dissatisfied with the piece.) In particular, I didn’t make a clear distinction between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The two overlap and combine but are not identical.

Anti-elitism involves distrust of privilege and its distortions. In education, the elite are those who come with money or make a great deal of money; who hobnob with Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and take part in various wealthy organizations; who have strong media connections and can get op-eds in the big magazines; and who don’t teach day in, day out. They need some knowledge of education, or they lose credibility, like Cathie Black, who briefly served as NYC schools chancellor. Yet they don’t have to do the daily work of planning and conducting lessons, calling parents, correcting papers, setting up rooms, or rushing around to make photocopies and gather supplies. On the other hand, precisely because they don’t have to perform all these tasks or deal with so many youngsters, they have room to write, do research, think ideas through, and deliberate with others.

It’s reasonable to be suspicious of elites, especially when they talk about the need for better teachers. Their degree of material comfort, compared to that of teachers, staggers and addles the mind. Some of them may work hard—I have no doubt that Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada do—but they do not have to grade 200 homework assignments over a weekend. They don’t have to worry about where the chattering is coming from in a room, how to introduce students to Aristotle, or why a certain student isn’t handing in homework. Nor do they have to worry about being judged by students’ test scores—on tests that have little to do with their subjects. Working in the quiet of your office, or even giving talks around the country, carries nothing of this pressure or exhilaration. It has its own pressures and rewards. I am not diminishing the work of good education leaders—but put them in a classroom for a month, with all of the responsibilities, and many would find themselves overwhelmed.

On the other end of things, we have populism, which opposes elitism tooth and nail. Populism is essentially a belief in the virtue, authority, and wisdom of the people. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell characterize it as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Populists say (this is my paraphrase, not that of Albertazzi and McDonnell), “look at those people making all that money and enjoying all that power. What do they know about our concerns? Why should they be telling us what to do? Why aren’t we the ones setting policy?”

If you don’t sympathize at least a little with a populist outlook, then you are missing something. There’s every reason to be wary of the ultra-powerful, and to yearn for more popular influence over public affairs. But populism has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, it presumes to know who the people are and what they want; it assumes that they more or less agree, when in fact there may be deep divisions among them. Second, it values certain ideas because they (presumably) come from the people, not because they are good. Along these lines, it may dismiss good ideas merely because they appear to come from the elite. Third, it places high value on group thinking and majority rule; those who don’t fit in or who hold independent views are regarded with slight suspicion. (Granted, elite groups and policymaking bodies have plenty of their own groupthink; I highly recommend Irving L. Janis’s book on the subject.)

So, anti-populists, or skeptics of populism, champion independent thought and intellect; they remind us of the “tyranny of the majority.” They point out where popular and populist movements have gone wrong, how they have gotten swept up in an illusion of consensus and truth, when in reality they were deluded and divided. The anti-populists have a point, but they, too, can get carried away. They can distrust anything that looks like a popular movement, even if it’s well founded and badly needed.

How could we bring together the best of elitism and populism, so that we could evaluate ideas on their own merit, allow for individual voices and group efforts, and honor those who devote themselves to education, especially teachers? First, we would have to put an end to the education racket. In many circles, education reform has become lucrative, with consultants making more than a thousand dollars a day. This is obnoxious at best, crippling at worst. Second, when the New York Times and other publications have “panels” on education topics, they should not only include teachers in the discussion, but bring them to the forefront. Third, we should take ideas on their merits, instead of judging them by the speaker’s position and connections. Fourth, we should respect independent thought. No one should be spurned for differing from the group. We are more likely to respect and understand independent thought when we discuss something substantial—so let’s have more discussions of subject matter itself.

These are only preliminary thoughts; I intend to think and write more about this topic.


N0te: I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.