Think about the last time you interrupted someone during class. I won’t judge. Was it because they were taking too long to finish their thought? Did you think of a better argument and decide to jump in? Were you simply asking them to speak louder?
Now, think about the last time someone interrupted you. Did it bother you? Did you want to call them out, but were too afraid to speak up? When you tried to speak again, did you forget what you were going to say?
If the first set of questions resonated with you more, it’s possible you’re an extrovert. If the second set of questions felt truer to you, it’s possible you’re an introvert. Though you might think you’re fully an “ambivert,” a mixture of these two traits, you probably do lean toward one side or another. It depends on if you get your energy from alone time or social interaction.
For me, I’ve always been more introverted. My parents caught onto this early in my childhood, though I admit it was pretty obvious — while my brother’s biggest fear was the dark, mine was talking to adults. But who could blame me? Every distant relative and family friend would tower over me, ask how old I was and expect me to say something cute or witty. I usually gave one-word answers and avoided eye contact. During holidays and dinner parties, I always had to escape to my room for a few minutes alone after every hour of socializing.
Growing up, I spent most of my time in my bedroom. Knowing this, my parents wouldn’t send me to my room as a punishment and instead told me to sit on the stairs as a “time-out.” It was agony, so close to the safety of my room yet completely vulnerable to interacting with anyone who decided to walk past me. It was forced social interaction. Maybe the possibility of this punishment was why I was so well-behaved.
As I’ve gotten older, the amount of forced interactions has grown exponentially. I can’t live peacefully in my room anymore: I have to finish my extracurriculars, group projects and presentations before I can have my alone time. Adulthood is beginning to feel like one big networking event.
Like most introverts, I find myself deciding if I should over-exert myself at social events or stay at home and disappoint people by canceling on them. It’s a fine line because, even when I do socialize, I’m often interrupted or not taken seriously because I don’t speak much. When I stay in my bedroom for the night, my friends think I don’t want to spend time with them. There seems to be no right answer.
In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” author and psychologist Susan Cain traces our extrovert-centric culture to the early 20th century, when Dale Carnegie and other businessmen began their ascent to success through public speaking and sales. As consumerism grew, the more our culture shifted toward selling the appearance of a product, which quickly translated into personality as well.
While smaller businessmen and farmers once valued “inner quality” over “outer quality,” when louder personalities entered the scene with bigger voices and bigger ideas, they took hold and became mainstream. As companies grew, the American ideal for success matched their faces: it doesn’t matter what you’re selling, it’s how you sell it — and if you sell yourself well, you’ll be successful.
Today, our society is centered around this ideal, so identifying as one of the quiet ones isn’t exactly something to call attention to. Many introverts find themselves “pretending” to be extroverts, as I have done in my time working in corporate America, waiting for the release of alone time in the bathroom between meetings or on my commute home.
Though this extrovert norm may feel natural in the United States, other cultures don’t all function like ours — other nations have more introverted norms like independence, while the United States is among the most extrovert-centric. Open floor plans, required participation grades and large social circles fuel our capitalist society, equating sociability and stage presence with success.
In her book, Cain goes on to cite the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and its push toward group projects and constant collaboration to promote extrovert tendencies. She calls this idea the “New GroupThink,” or the mainstream preference of collaborative work over individual work. She goes on to mention that solitude can be the clearest path to efficiency and innovation, particularly pointing to the top computer scientists, musicians and college students who always prioritize working individually. Still, business schools are weaving social skills into their degree requirements, taking a cue from Carnegie and other businesspeople of his time. (For the record, I’ve been searching for years and still have never met an introvert in Ross. Let me know if you find one. I want to talk.)
Though it may not be to the same extent, the rest of the University sets itself up as an extroverted school where the “Leaders and the Best” — or maybe “loudest and the best” is more fitting — are constantly connecting. Students are heavily encouraged to go to office hours and may find themselves without letters of recommendation if they are too socially anxious to do so. Grades will suffer if students do not speak up frequently during class. As I’ve written about before in The Daily, career fairs are often framed as mandatory and the only way to find a job post-grad. In a place where many students feel like they’re not doing enough, introverts face the same pressures but often have less social energy to keep up with everyone else.
To an extrovert, the introvert’s dilemma may be a simple fix. “Can’t you just go up to someone and start talking to them?” they might ask, or “Shouldn’t everyone get a rush from going to a party?” This might be a good time to point out that people don’t “choose” to be an introvert; as Cain cites in her book, it’s been psychologically proven that acetylcholine is more active in introverts’ brains, which gives them pleasure from remaining calm and focusing on one thing for a long time. To contrast, dopamine is more active in extroverts’ brains which provides the motivation to seek external rewards like earning money and climbing the social ladder.
Cain also points out the contrasting effects of these neurotransmitters on the brain: Introverts are more likely to share private information online because of the removed social cues. Extroverts are often more impulsive. Introverted babies are often the ones that cry, not extroverts, because they’re more reactive and have a lower threshold for stimuli. Other species have introverts and extroverts that find specific habitats to suit their personality, such as “sitter” fruit flies that tend to stay in one place and “rover” fruit flies that tend to explore more.
Curious about the effects of this personality difference on the University community, I met with four students who identify as introverts, each at various points in their college careers, and asked about how they’re managing to thrive despite the pressures of hustle culture.
In early March, just a week before classes were moved online, I met with LSA senior Alexandra Niforos (she/her) at the Michigan League. She was sitting by herself doing work in Maizie’s Kitchen & Market before I arrived. As an executive producer for MUSKET, the largest student-run musical theatre organization on campus, she had been working nonstop for the past few weeks preparing for their upcoming production. I imagine her Google Calendar was completely filled with meetings and rehearsals.
Based on her schedule, you might not have guessed Niforos is an introvert. In fact, she even chose her major, English, based on its level of introversion, recognizing that her need for alone time conflicted with her love for musical theatre.
“I actually wanted to apply to SMTD, but decided not to because I don’t thrive in performance,” she said. “That world is too extroverted for me, so I like dictating things from the administrative side (through MUSKET).”
Though Niforos is often energized by spending time with friends or producing a show, she always reaches a limit with these interactions. Some situations may be quicker to exhaust her than others, but she always hits a point when she needs to go home.
“Ideally, I would spend 50 percent of my time alone,” she said. “But I never get that.”
When I asked why not, she scoffed, “Because I do a million and one things!”
Niforos lamented the pressure of being successful in college, which includes going to classes (although she has purposefully never taken a course that includes the phrase “group project” in the description) and having an impressive resume. She does enjoy being productive and made clear that she only involves herself in what she’s passionate about, but even her passions leave her in desperate need of alone time. Yet, it’s difficult to clear the time in her day for it.
“I don’t know, it just seems selfish to prioritize (solitude),” she said. “It’s hard to say that I need an hour at home because that’s not socially acceptable. I just feel this pressure all the time to adapt to a world that doesn’t fit (my) personality style and the way of being my best self.”
To cope with the pressure, Niforos said she does spend equal time recovering after intense social interaction. For example, by taking a week off after an intensive week finishing a MUSKET production.
Sanjay Das (he/him), a U-M alumnus with a degree in biomolecular science and current medical student at Central Michigan University, expressed a similar sentiment to Niforos in needing equal recovery time to interaction time.
“If I go through a period of extrovertedness, I then have to go through a phase of introvertedness,” Das told The Daily in a phone interview. “I do prefer to be more in an introverted zone, because every day I feel like I have only a certain amount of social battery charge.”
As a freshman at the University, Das did what many introverts would probably avoid — he joined Beta Theta Pi, a social fraternity. Rather than being burned out by constant social interaction, however, Das noted that the fraternity helped him make friends as an introvert.
“Actually, the only thing that made the University bearable was Beta Theta Pi,” he said.
Throughout his time as a pre-med student, Das constantly felt the need to be productive, which conflicted with his introversion and left him feeling burned out.
“I just thought, ‘I have to take this extra class or stay extra hours in the lab just to put myself in a more advantageous place for when I apply to medical school,’” he said.
Now in medical school, he’s hoping to become a surgeon or incorporate research into his career to make more time for solitude within his work.
Though Das has found great success through his introversion, he also believes extroversion is necessary for the medical field and often finds himself assuming those who are social are the most successful. He noted his University experience would have been easier had he not been introverted.
“If I were an extrovert, I wouldn’t have avoided stuff because it was too far out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I think I would have gotten more out of U-M, since I felt shell-shocked with everything that was going on.”
Parker Kehrig (they/them), an LSA sophomore studying sociology and women’s studies, is also dealing with a University culture that values productivity and extroversion. Kehrig and I both attended competitive high schools in Grosse Pointe, so I related to a lot of their points. Our interview in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library ended up being a lot louder than one would expect from two introverts.
“I just think there’s a certain amount of extroversion that’s expected here, with an emphasis on networking and party culture,” they said. “There’s this idea at ‘top-tier’ universities that everyone has to be running all the time and if you’re not running, you’re failing … If you don’t pass out, you’re not working hard enough.”
Kehrig pointed out the relationship between this productivity mindset and capitalism, which leads one to think that missing out on anything is turning down a valuable opportunity. Because Kehrig wants to get into graduate school and make a living wage, they said they have to buy into this mindset somewhat and load up their schedule.
When asked about their schedule this semester, they responded, “I’m taking 16 credits, working at Spectrum Center, helping with a UROP project about criminalization confinement, and participating in the Telluride House.”
As a result, there are times when the fear of missing out, or FOMO, keeps Kehrig from getting enough alone time to recharge. They also experience anxiety, which exacerbates their introverted tendencies and often makes it difficult to focus in public spaces.
“If I wasn’t so anxious, maybe I would be more extroverted,” they said. “Sometimes I do have to leave a function when I’m not in the right headspace, but I also can’t cancel … (because) I have FOMO.”
Kehrig still made it clear that they love spending time with people and making new friends, they just need to balance their social life with their alone time to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Trevor McCarty (he/him), a graduate student in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) who received his bachelor’s in Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience, mirrored similar feelings as Kehrig in his sociability. McCarty reached out to me a few months ago to respond to my first Daily article about introversion, recognizing the similarities between us, and I was intrigued by his confidence in cold-emailing a stranger. We met at Amer’s Delicatessen for an interview in early March.
McCarty reiterated that introversion doesn’t mean you don’t like being around people, it means you need a recuperation period afterward because it takes energy.
“People think introversion is synonymous with shyness and there are probably correlations, but it’s not the same thing,” he said. “I’m very expressive with my friends. And I actually do really well in both collaborative and individual learning spaces, I think learning with people is better.”
McCarty compared the introversion and extroversion of his undergraduate program with his graduate program, which offered him different outlets for socializing.
“BCN is so big that you can just be a fly on the wall — I just went to class then came home and did my homework,” he said. “SEAS is much smaller than most undergrad programs and lends itself to people socializing outside of class. Being an extrovert is definitely better there because you can connect easier with a wider variety of people.”
McCarty is studying climate adaptation and resilience, focusing on a framework that will allow communities to adapt in the face of climate change. Because McCarty is so passionate about his work, he said that it’s easy to talk to people who are interested in the same thing as him, even though big program events can be draining.
McCarty has never been ashamed of his introversion and rather sees it as a way to find “the spaces that make (him) feel the most (himself).” Because of his positive outlook on introversion, McCarty wishes others valued it more.
“As a child, I felt like I had to get out of my shyness, like I was thrown into the water and couldn’t swim,” he said. “That seems wrong … We need to have a society where extroversion is not seen as the default, where we cultivate the kind of value that can be gained from introverts.”
If we set up a society that emphasizes both introverted and extroverted qualities, it’s possible that we could become more productive. We would value solitude and knowing oneself just as much as connecting with others. Social interaction would be more deliberate and focused on quality time. We would listen for the sake of listening, rather than thinking about what we’ll say next. Instead of throwing students into groups to come up with an answer, we would allow them to work individually before collaborating or getting feedback from others.
Every student I talked to in the makings of this piece is adding meaningful contributions to society and doing so because of their introversion rather than in spite of it. Alone time has allowed Niforos to better know herself and recognize that her calling is in theatre production rather than performance. Das works at the hospital and silently completes a task while others spend time socializing, which has helped him find a passion for surgery and research. Kehrig uses their listening and introspection skills to their advantage in pursuing social work. McCarty is able to channel both his introverted and extroverted sides to succeed in a possible career in climate change adaptation.
For me, I’m graduating as an introvert into an extroverted world. That’s daunting to someone with social anxiety — which may be either the cause or effect of my introversion — and who inherently doesn’t have the social skills or connections an extrovert does to get ahead. But I know that self-reflection has taken me to where I am today and even if I had the choice to be an extrovert, I’m not sure I would take it.
Though we might be interrupted or take too long to raise our hands in class, introverts’ strengths often reveal themselves in non-visible skills. We pay attention and listen deeply. We use solitude to find wisdom. And we will always find a way to be heard, because we know that even the softest voices can have the loudest echoes.