In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain relays the story of Rosa Park and the Montgomery Bus Strike during the Civil Rights Movement.
On that fateful bus ride, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and quietly repeated the word “no” when she was asked to get off. When the police forcefully removed her from the bus, she walked silently next to them, only occasionally asking questions such as, “Why do you push us all around?”
Later, when Martin Luther King Jr. organizes a rally in support of Parks, she stands quietly by his side. But, “her mere presence is enough to galvanize the crowd.”
Rosa Parks’s historic bus ride is considered the starting point of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement that changes the course of history in the United States, with many Jews and Jewish organizations strongly in support of integration and equality.
You would imagine that Rosa Parks, the instigator of this change, would have been an outspoken, loud woman. You would think that she stood on podiums and preached to the crowd. In reality, Rosa Parks was a very quiet woman. But, she was also a very strong and determined woman. Is that possible? Can you be shy and courageous?
The answer is, yes. And, that is the power of introversion.
Introverts vs. Extroverts
Cain describes the introverts and extroverts as the north and south of temperaments. Introverts are people who prefer to be alone, enjoying the lack of stimulation and noise. On the other hand, extroverts thrive off of other people’s conversation and energy. While introversion and shyness often overlap, people who are shy experience anxiety when faced with social situations. In contrast, “Introverted people aren’t bothered by social situations,” says Louis Schmidt, director of the Child Emotion Laboratory at McMaster University in Ontario. “They just prefer not to engage.”
By some counts, roughly thirty percent of people fall into the introverted temperament end of the spectrum. And, while we might think that introversion and extroversion are choices we make, a study at Harvard University illustrated that even four month old babies exhibit tendencies towards introversion and extroversion that correlate with their personalities when they get older.
Benefits of Introversion
While American culture values extroverts, there are some key benefits that introverts possess. Firstly, because introverts spend less time talking, they are wonderful listeners. Listening is an essential element in nonverbal communication, perhaps one of the most important skills when going on a date, making friends or interviewing for a job. Recent studies show that introverted CEOs of major companies are most successful because they are able to listen to the creative ideas of their employees, instead of asserting their own ideas on a consistent basis.
Another benefit of introversion is good decision making. By nature, introverts are less likely to take excessive risks and therefore are more likely to weigh their decisions carefully before acting. Cain explains that “Extroverts are much more likely to get really excited by the possibility of a reward, but because of that, they won’t always pay attention to warning signals. Introverts are much more circumspect.”
Yet another benefit of introversion is the skill mastery, which has to do with the introvert’s ability to spend significant patches of time alone. Studies done on chess masters, concert violinists, athletes, and even regular university students preparing for exams demonstrated that the more time spent practicing or studying alone, the more skilled the person became. Florida State University psychologist reasoned, “You gain the most on your performance when you work alone. And the introverted temperament might make some kids more willing to make that commitment.”
Disadvantages of Introversion
While introversion does have benefits, there are some very real disadvantages as pointed out by a new study published in the Journal of School Psychology.
The study looked at the social and academic progress of children aged 3 to 5 throughout the school year, following over 4,400 pre-kindergarten children in the Head Start program in a large northeastern urban school district. The study found that children who were extremely socially reserved or withdrawn were at risk of falling behind in math and reading once they reached kindergarten.
The reasons behind this phenomenon may include teachers overlooking students who are not active in the classroom and therefore failing to identify the gaps in their knowledge; alternatively the students could be struggling with math and reading and thus becoming withdrawn.
In addition to this academic issue, introverts also face problems when they enter the workforce. Most modern offices are laid out in a style that does not allow for personal space. Instead of enclosed individual offices, cubicles or open-plan offices are the norm. While teamwork thrives in these arenas, introverts will often struggle with the lack of personal space.
Parents of Introverts
Traditionally, extroversion is valued over introversion in our communities. We tell our children, “Don’t be shy.” We grade our students on class participation and sometimes take off point for not participating enough. We call silences in conversation “awkward pauses.” Perhaps, though, we need to figure out how to strike a balance with our children, teaching them the value of following their natural dispositions while occasionally pushing past their discomfort every now and then.
Some tips include:
Check in with teachers. Introverts are often overlooked in the classroom. But, if you sporadically check in with your child’s teacher, the teacher will know to look out for your child, even if he is quiet. This will ensure that his progress will be monitored.
Encourage moderate risks. What feels like an easy task for you might be a daring adventure for your child. Therefore, discuss with your child what feels comfortable for him or her and what slightly pushes limits. For instance, if your child refuses all playdates, suggest having a short playdate with only one other child in the comfort of your home. Then, create a signal for your child to let you know when he or she feels the playdate is over. Taking moderate risks will help your child become more at ease when he is forced into difficult situations.
Respect boundaries. Don’t push far beyond what is comfortable for your child. Listen to him if he says that he cannot do what you are asking of him in social situations.
Perhaps the main idea parents can take away from this article is that shy is not inherently bad. In fact, there are some wonderful things about being shy. Think about what Rosa Parks was able to accomplish. However, because shy children often float under the radar, just make sure someone is keeping track of them!
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.
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