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(In which I try to tell fellow introverts to be themselves.)
A short while after I started working at Western Theological Seminary, I found a job description for my position tucked away in a file. Under “Essential Attributes” it said: “Must be extroverted.”
Oops. My favorite pastimes are reading, writing, and walking my dog, all of which don’t exactly scream “extrovert.” (Just last Friday someone asked me where I hang out. I said, “My house.”) Why had the seminary hired me? Could an introvert do this job? I kept going, and eventually learned my predecessor was an introvert. On top of that, half of the rest of the advancement staff are introverts. While saying the job required extroverts, the seminary had actually put together a balanced team of introverts and extroverts.
Although the assumption might be that fund raisers should be a bunch of “hail-fellows-well-met,” I believe our school is better served by the mixture of gifts and temperaments we’ve assembled. (And the mixture of genders. We aren’t all fellows, either.) Our most important work is in developing relationships. Introverts can do this well. We may not work a room like a skilled politician, but we can stay connected and build trust.
The seminary affirmed this by hiring a balanced staff. At the same time, through that job description, the seminary showed a prejudice toward the extrovert ideal.
I’ve been reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This is a great book for those of us who have wondered “What’s wrong with me?” Cain has coined the term “extrovert ideal” to describe Western culture. The extrovert ideal is pervasive, and as a result, introverts can feel like a proverbial pair of brown loafers when the rest of the world is a black tuxedo. Work stations are set up for teams, classrooms are set up in student pods, and those that just want to be left alone are labeled “anti-social,” “loners,” and “awkward.” She charts the fascinating difference between the self-help literature of a century ago, which focused on developing character, to that of today, which focuses on developing personality. One effect of this is the advance of anti-anxiety drugs – one wonders how much of these would be necessary if Western culture was more affirming of introverts.
Since I’ve been reading Cain’s book, I’ve been wondering how this plays itself out in the church. I’m sure you have other examples, I thought of these:
I spent close to a decade earlier in my career helping churches find youth ministers. I can honestly say I never heard any search committee say, “We’d like someone quiet and thoughtful who will build depth in our kids along with long-lasting relationships.” You can guess what they asked for instead. “Charisma” topped the list, along with “outgoing,” “fun,” and “energetic.” A favorite way to judge the effectiveness of a candidate was to put him or her in a room with 25 kids and some pizza and watch them interact. It was almost as if all those search teams thought the Pied Piper was a Christian story.
How about those we send to other cultures? I asked a retired missionary to Japan if sending those raised in the West with an extroversion norm was a problem in a more introverted culture and he said, “The very attributes that make someone successful in America work against them in Asia. What we think of as fun is considered loud, and what we think of as friendly is considered rude.”
Or what about coffee hour, “witnessing” or even“circle up into a group of three and pray together”?
God made us extroverts and introverts, and he put all of us somewhere on an extroversion – introversion scale. We need the attributes of both. The extrovert ideal sends the message to introverts that to succeed, you have to behave differently than you are naturally inclined to behave. That’s simply not true. Introverts as diverse as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi did all right for themselves.
If you’ve ever hid in a bathroom, walked out of a party just after arriving, or felt your skin crawl when someone said, “turn to that stranger next to you and get to know them in the next three minutes,” take a deep breath and relax. It’s okay. Think about this: you’re reading this on a computer. Either Bill Gates or Steve Wozniak had something to do with the machine you see this on. Introverts both. As were Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Neither extroversion nor introversion should be normative. One isn’t right while the other is wrong. They’re just different. As Cain says: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”
Great post Jeff. I've been learning quite a bit about myself as an introvert lately. Thanks for the book recommendation too.
I loved that book — I realized that I'd never before been affirmed for being an introvert. I'm glad this sort of conversation is happening and continuing to happen in posts like this.