Friday, May 9, 2014

Introversion and cultural bias

I recently started working as a special ed. teacher. As I take part in these meetings that evaluate the needs of a child, I am struck with how biased our culture is against introverts.[When I use the word introvert, don’t hear me saying shy, quiet or sensitive. It’s a matter of how your brain responds to external stimuli, most notably social stimulation. An introvert is drained by external stimuli and extroverts are energized.]

There is a section within an official document where we write in the social and emotional behavior of the child. Every single time without fail, when we want to portray a child as normal and well adjusted, we say things like “He/she is sociable and interacts with everyone. He/she has a lot of friends. He/she is very talkative.” It doesn’t seem to ever be a good thing if we call a child reserved.

That’s messed up.

It is in fact possible for a healthy normal child to speak infrequently, have a few close friends rather than be friends with everyone, prefer to function independently and dislike noise and hype.
But the introvert kids are not always going to be the quiet ones in the corner with a book.

Let’s look at one of the children I’m working with. We’ll call him Benjamin. This child is reported to cause disruption, throw food during lunch, struggle to keep up with the class and display defiant behavior. He never wants to do homework when he comes home from school.

 If we take a closer look, the disruption and food throwing only occur during lunch and dismissal, a time when he is surrounded by a noisy, crowd. The teacher claims he struggles to keep up with the class, but when he is allowed to work independently, he works brilliantly. The defiance happens when the teachers scolds him for not being on the same page as everyone else in the class.

If Benjamin’s teachers would realize that he is hardwired differently, they would give him some help with overstimulating places like cafeterias. They would not scold him for getting ahead of the group. They would realize that being with people all day has drained rather than energized him and they would let him finish his homework at a time when he has more energy. They would let him function within his strengths rather than insist he look like the “ideal” kids.

Our culture has idealized the gregarious, overly forward extrovert. We equate it with stability, competency and even leadership ability. Politicians need to appear to be a classic extrovert in order to be taken seriously.
Every study on the subject had shown that this is an absurdity. Constant, excited interaction with people is no measure for competency.

Everyone needs to know how to be polite and properly interact with those around them. We’ve been taught to be friendly and kind to others but I propose that this includes extroverts being respectful of an introvert’s space and preferences.

Have you ever been woken up consistently by something really annoying while you were absolutely exhausted? Something like a fire alarm going off every half hour in the middle of the night after you worked a double shift. It would make you very grumpy, cranky and upset. That’s what an introvert feels like when they don’t get their space. Except we’re not allowed to say anything or even let on that we are upset. Otherwise we are told we are “antisocial”, “stuck up” or worse "boring".

(Side note: Most people are not either an introvert or an extrovert. It’s more of a spectrum.)

As you may have guessed, I am an extreme introvert and I didn’t always know that it was ok to be me. I was often scolded or called a “wallflower” for not being social enough or needing to take breaks from noise and people. Discovering my innate hard-wiring  was so freeing.(Introvert brains actually function primarily with a totally different neurochemical than extroverts I could finally stop beating myself up for not being able to “keep up” and not thriving in jobs others would have found easy. I have plenty to offer the world, but it’s definitely going to look different from my extroverted friends.

So I totally understand this sweet little girl

Susan Cain has brilliant a ted talk about the power of introverts and how we need to change our cultural bias:

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