Two years ago, I found myself living in a freshman dormitory at the heart of UC Berkeley. When I told other students where I was living, they gave me a congratulatory nod and told me, “Great! That’s the most sociable dorm!” They were quite right: my floormates would leave their doors open to “encourage student bonding”, plan trips to San Francisco, huddle like a group of bears while they hunt for the next frat party and just drink the night away with their red cups in hand. In a nutshell, they were the typical college students who liked to have fun.
I wished I had listened to Susan Cain’s talk on TED.com when I was a freshman. In the video, Cain, a former corporate lawyer, discusses her book entitled “QUIET: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” She praises the potential for leadership and creative thought of introverts, who are often undermined in a culture that overvalues extroverted and outgoing personas.
Let’s face it, we generally see the talkative, always-smiling person as the healthy and ideal being and we wonder what is wrong with the person who prefers quiet time over drinking parties. We can make the argument that this is not the case; the media, for example, puts introverts in the spotlight – Sheldon Cooper of CBS’s ‘The Big Bang Theory‘, Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s ‘Sherlock‘, and I am quite sure there are many more.
However, these are problematic portrayals: the media spotlight only highlights the introverted persona as a disease of the mind. We enjoy watching these introverts live (or rather, struggle) in a world that has been lately conditioned for extroverts. We see them as anomalies. Regardless of their high intellect, we see them as lacking and the plots of these television series often lead to a predictable conclusion: Sheldon and Sherlock’s maturation involves being at ease with other people. In other words, they gain more friends.
This is not to say – and Cain surely points this out – that sociability is the actual disease. Instead, we must learn to accept that others are just not outgoing and outspoken. There are actually quite a large number of people in the world who prefer to have five really good friends over a group of 20. A subtly humorous article by Jonathan Rauch claims that he “performed exhaustive research on this question (of how many introverts are there in the world), in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 percent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—‘a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population.’”
Returning to my freshman flashback, my neighbor told me (quite condescendingly) that he was glad to see me hanging out with someone. “Everyone needs friends.” he told me. It is a common misconception to think of introverts as friendless. True, I may not have gone to dinner with my twenty other floormates and I may not have gone partying with them, but I could not be happier. In a sea of unfamiliar faces, I found some friends, but they are really, really good friends.
[Image by Graur Codrin]