Over a third of the population are introverts, while the other two-thirds are extroverts. Introverts can have strong people skills, but they prefer to be interacting with people one-on-one, and they can get drained by group interaction. Introverts need alone time to recharge their energy.
If most people are extroverts, who enjoy lots of interaction and get recharged by being with people, then more parents and teachers are also extroverted. There is pressure from parents and teachers to get children to be more social.
I often see children and teens in counseling whose parents worry that perhaps their child is not socially engaged with others on weekends and during other free time. When I check with the child or teen, sometimes they are not depressed, but have had more than enough people contact all week at school.
It often occurs that extroversion is the norm and the ideal, but we need to rethink that assumption. It's far better for us to be informed about the continuum of introversion to extroversion, and being sensitive accepting our own natural temperament type, as well as those of the people we're close to. There is nothing inherently bad about being an introvert.
This situation is the topic of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown Publishers, 2012). In this well-written book, Cain suggests that we undervalue introverts. She charts the historical development of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ from Dale Carnegie courses about how to win friends and influence people via extroversion, to Tony Robbins, Harvard Business School, American schools, and mega-churches. We favor extroverts, and it's not fair to those who are more reserved by natural temperament.
I found Cain's interview with Harvard developmental psychology researcher Jerome Kagan fascinating. He's in his 80s, and has spent his career studying the emotional and cognitive development of children. In one of his studies, begun in 1989, Kagan and his team began to study 500 four-month-old infants, and based on a 45 minute evaluation, he predicted which babies were likely to become introverts or extroverts as adults. In the study, babies were exposed to voices, noises, colors and smells. Their reactions varied widely, some being highly reactive, and others being low reactors.
Kagan reexamined his subjects at ages 2, 7, and 11. As it turned out, Kagan was right. His predictions were accurate that the babies who were highly reactive to stimuli at age 4 months usually grew into more serious, quiet, introverted types. The low reactive infants, who remained calm, were more likely to develop into relaxed, confident, extroverted types.
Cain examines brain research on what role the amygdala, the emotional switchboard in the brain, may play in differential reactivity in extroverts vs. introverts. Some of what determines reactivity may be hard-wired in your genetics. Another part is the influence of the world around you. David Dobbs developed a theory that some children are like dandelions, meaning they can thrive in just about any environment. "Orchid children," in contrast, have highly reactive nervous systems that can make them easily overwhelmed with adversity. Orchid children especially need a nurturing environment. These highly sensitive children can, with the right support and nurturing, grow to become even more socially skilled and have fewer emotional difficulties than the low-reactors.
It's helpful to know some of the concepts, particularly if you are on the quiet side, or are close to someone who is. It helps us accept that while your amygdala may be hard-wired to panic when you have to give a speech or make small talk in a crowd of strangers, your adaptive self-talk can calm you down and help you get through the temporary stress. Learning to coach yourself through situations that aren't natural for you helps train your frontal cortex (the higher level thinking part of your brain) to not let the amygdala (the ancient part of the brain) run the whole show.
Cain's book gives us a better way to understand and accept our own natural level of extroversion or introversion. She also encourages each of us to find our optimum level or "sweet spot" of stimulation. We don't want to be either bored (under-stimulated), or overwhelmed (over-stimulated).You can have some fun playing with how much stimulation, social interaction, and alone time you like in your week, your weekend, and your life.
Quiet is a perfectly good way to be, and a fascinating read. Understanding your own temperament, and that of your partner and children, is an excellent place to start.