Introversion in a globalized and over-populated world

by Alexia Larcher

A few days ago, one of my friends asked me whether it was possible for introverts to become more extroverted. I’ve heard this question come up a few times in debates about introversion and I’m sure if we could wave our magic wands in the air and make our wishes come true, several of us introverts would go for it.

From our side of the fence, it seems easier to be an extrovert. Extroverts never get flustered in social situations or tire out. They can chat up anybody easily. They have real pleasure in spending time with crowds and meet a lot of people. They seem to make friends more easily and have more friends over time. They get better jobs and get paid more. People listen when they talk. (That’s what we believe, anyway.) Some introverts will go as far as adopting extrovert traits to get ahead in life.

Most people ask whether introverts can become extroverts. But should they?

Introverts can focus over longer periods of time. We can dig deep into the topics they like and have an easier time putting in the hard work that can make us experts. We put a high value on listening to others. We are introspective and are likely to have large internal worlds. We are often thinking things over, replaying interactions over and over. Reflection comes easily to us. All of these are strengths that we have as introverts.

Essentially, by ignoring our strengths and focusing on our weaknesses, we are treating introversion and extroversion as habits. Introversion is not just a habit – it is how our brains process stimuli. It makes every behaviour that much harder to change. It’s one thing to learn how to make eye contact that your extroverts can enjoy; it’s quite another to become the social connector for party animals. Similarly, extroverts do feel drained from being alone and it would take just as much effort for them to feel any sort of long-term comfort in solitude.

So why are we increasingly pressured to change? I see two possible explanations asides from cultural expectations: overpopulation and globalization.

First, overpopulation. We live in a crowded world, nearly 7 billion as I write this post. Most of us live in cities and more of us move to cities every year. Since so many of us are essentially “competing” for the same resources to live (water, food, homes, etc.), it can only make sense to coordinate things if we don’t want conflicts to break out. Think about politics. Most democratic systems rely on some form of representation, where one politician “represents” several thousand people at once. And each politician has to coordinate with other politicians to vote in the laws they want to implement. Same thing goes for non-profits. If you want to deliver products halfway across the globe, you need to be social enough to acquire these products and persuade several other people to ship them. In other words, many people seem to believe that to be social is a vote for peace. They forget that everybody who is not a psychopath is social to some degree, including introverts.

Next, globalization. The fact that so many people live in cities means that it’s become easier to realize economies of scale, i.e. it’s easier to do everything in bulk. We can build a million products in factories, ship a million things in containers, which then get transported by the hundreds by ships across the globe, distributed over a thousand Wal-Marts, and shelved next to thousands of other products. Similarly, it is cheaper to shove 200 people in a university classroom than 50 people in a laboratory. It is cheaper to do group work in class than to give one-on-one attention to students. It is cheaper to build 100 houses in neighborhoods out of the exact same materials bought in bulk. It is cheaper to serve hospital meals out of a cafeteria, excluding dietary restrictions and allergies. It is cheaper to have “open offices” and cubicle parks than offices for everyone. It is cheaper to do monoculture, excluding the long-term damages to ecosystems. In other words, introverts can’t be bulked in with everyone else without getting burned out and so are seen as having “more selfish” desires than everyone else.

Unfortunately, both of these seem like long-term trends that are unlikely to stabilize anytime soon. Either way, you will have a hard time doing anything if you don’t acknowledge your own strengths and you cannot create long-lasting changes if you don’t build on your strengths first. I will address possible changes (both to enforce introvert boundaries and learn extrovert behaviours) in future posts.

Some more thoughts about using your strengths as an introvert: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/the-benefits-of-being-an-introvert/all/1/

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