Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
When author Susan Cain, who wrote the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking, went to overnight camp at the age of 9, she brought a suitcase full of books because reading is her greatest passion. Very quickly, between counselors and campers alike, she was encouraged to put her books away and join the party.
If you went to overnight camp, what would be in your suitcase? Would it be books or crosswords or an iPod with headphones? Or would it be full of games so that everyone can join in? Or perhaps some of each?
And what would your children take to summer camp, especially if they were packing their own suitcase? If they packed solo activities, would you encourage them to add in some Uno, Mad Libs, Apples to Apples, a frisbee – things that would help them engage with others? (Probably, and I would too).
Extroverts get their energy from being around others. This is the child who just doesn’t seem to play by herself. Extroverts can become bored if not around people. They do their best thinking while talking with others; their ideas come to them while in conversation. They tend to make small talk easily, are outgoing and gregarious, and are comfortable in social situations. Generally, American culture values qualities of extroversion over introversion. Successful American leaders in business and politics are often extroverts.
Introverts are more focused on their inner world of thoughts and ideas. They enjoy being around people, but social contact in big doses can drain their energy and they’ll need some alone time to recharge. They can have good social skills and be able to make small talk, but perhaps not for too long. Introverts are more likely to enjoy dinner with a few good friends rather than going to a party, especially one where they don’t know many people. They are more likely to think/rehearse before they speak, tend to observe a game before joining in, and can become very humiliated if they make a mistake in public. Introverts make up about 25-40% of the U.S. population. Among gifted children, about 60% are introverts.
Shyness is yet something else. Shyness has an element of apprehension, nervousness or anxiety. Shy people might really WANT to interact with others, but are afraid to. Introverts are not necessarily shy. Therapy can help with shyness, but introversion is a personality trait.
Here’s an example…..children at school are sitting at their desks. The teacher says they can have free time to work or play in groups. The introvert remains at his desk reading a book because he wants the quiet, solitary time and recharges from that. The shy child stays at her desk, because while she wants to play with the other kids, she is afraid to.
Ambiverts are a combination of both….they are truly comfortable and enjoy being out with friends, but then need to come home and recharge with alone time. If they are not with friends, they can easily entertain themselves.
And what is social anxiety? Social anxiety disorder is a strong fear of being judged by others and of being embarrassed. This fear can be so strong that it gets in the way of going to work or school or doing other everyday things. So giving a toast at a wedding, or even being called on in class can cause so much stress and worry that someone will avoid these situations.
When we get to our professional lives, we can pick the type of environment that we are comfortable in and one that fits with our personality and tendencies. For kids at school, they might find themselves in situations that don’t entirely play to their preferences. They might sit in pods of five students, work on group projects, play team sports in PE, be encouraged to play with others at recess – and not get the alone time to think and recharge so that they can carry on with their day. If they wish to spend recess by themselves, sometimes we worry that they aren’t developing social skills. But actually, they may really be happy with that time to themselves, albeit in a sea of other children.
Is the goal to move introverts along the continuum towards extroversion? Can someone make him/herself into the other?
Generally, if anyone in our culture is encouraged to change, it is the introverts trying to become more extroverted. They might take a public speaking class or join group activities. But even with working on improving their social presence in certain environments, likely their natural inclination will not change.
When you have introverts and extroverts in the same family, planning family activities can be more challenging. If you have an introverted child, he might not wish to be involved in the types and numbers of extracurricular activities in which his siblings happily participate. You might sign him up for soccer and he would prefer a solo activity like piano lessons. If it’s your introvert’s night to pick where to go for dinner out, he might pick ordering in!
There is no right or wrong here, just different. Married couples often pick their opposite. Children might pick their opposite as a friend. The introverts may be looking for someone to help them meet others, and the extroverts may be looking for good listeners.
What’s important is that we begin to know ourselves, and feel good about what we are finding. We all adjust towards the other direction at times, but generally, we want others to accept us for who we are. (And us to accept us for who we are.)
So this summer, watch what your child packs in her suitcase to go to summer camp. There is some learning and insight there.