Just about every introvert author today says that introverts live in an extravert-biased society (see, for instance, Laney, Rauch, Cain, Granneman, and Aron). Society imposes an extravert ideal on human practices (like communicating) and institutions (like workplaces), which means that people are judged by extravert standards. Recall from my previous post that introversion is a temperament, an inborn set of traits that make people more energized, interested, and engaged with their own internal world rather than the external one. While not the same thing, introverts tend to be lower on the personality trait of extraversion, which measures assertiveness, sociality, energy level, and sensation seeking. We also tend to need more time away from stimulating situations to recharge than extraverts do.
Carl Jung, the creator of the term “introvert,” acknowledges this as well. He says that extraverts are able to easily “conform to the general style” of society, which is extraverted. (Interesting research on adapting to others’ behavior supports this—See Duffy & Chartrand.) However, when introverts try to conform to the general style, we run into problems. Society only appreciates what we can produce in the physical world, “the visible and tangible values,” rather than what introverts have to offer with our internally-focused talents. Because of this, we often think we need to be like extraverts and do extraverted things to be valued. However, Jung says, if introverts would only be ourselves and remain “true to [our] own principle” of what we value and how we draw energy, then we would be fine. Because of this, Jung doesn’t think introverts are oppressed. (Pages 392–393)
But as an introvert living in an extraverted world today, this doesn’t seem to capture the full story of my experiences. Is it possible for introverts to go against mainstream society in this way? And even if we do, what will this mean for our treatment in society?
If introverts aren’t oppressed, then that means we just need to learn to be ourselves and function authentically, as Jung says. But if we are oppressed, then that means that society won’t let us function authentically, not without paying a heavy price. Using what I discussed in the post where I gave the definition of oppression, let’s try to figure out if introverts are oppressed. In the process, maybe we’ll find some ways we can make the world more introvert-friendly.
As discussed before, oppression happens when a social system is set up to favor some people at the expense of others. This system harms people purely because of a social group identity, such as a gender, race, or religion. And like Marilyn Frye’s bird cage, it consists of many components that seem easily avoided on their own, but that when combined often prevent the person from escaping the oppressive situation. We also described Ann Cudd’s four-part definition of an oppressive social practice: it must cause harm, the harm must target someone on the basis of social group membership, it must benefit members of another social group, and it must involve unfair coercion.
So it seems like we have a pretty clear set of criteria. Given this definition of oppression, are introverts oppressed?
First, let’s consider how people are valued in society. We assign status to someone on the basis of what they can produce externally. These might be displays of dominance, or the ability to command or show confidence, or displays of fitness, or how desirable our skills appear to the opposite sex. We also value people’s usefulness to us. Evolutionary psychologists say that we evolved this way, creating status hierarchies so we would know who was in charge without always needing to resort to violence (Wright), and showing our fitness to potential mates (Miller). Many of our talents produce displays that people value: persuading others, showing a beautiful physique, fighting to protect, finding or producing food, comforting with soothing words, creating art that appeals to the senses, and telling exciting stories. Other talents, like thinking of philosophy, daydreaming, studying, or reflecting on our past, are not highly valued by themselves.
External displays of ability clearly show people how good you are at something and how useful you are. In our market economy today, we don’t just use external displays to assign status to people. We also use them to assign people value. In other words, we pay them more. We pay people more to do jobs that we value more, and which satisfy needs we care about more. For example, someone who is a skilled surgeon will make more money than a house cleaner. Why? Because the skill of surgery saves lives while the skill of cleaning usually doesn’t. Also, it’s a lot more difficult to develop the skills of life-saving surgery than the skills of cleaning houses.
What does this have to do with introverts? It has to do with our nature. Introverts naturally develop talents related to our inner world early in life. These are our distinctive gifts that make up an important part of our identity. It is only later, when we develop our extraverted functioning to better deal with the external world, that we develop skills that impact the physical world. That’s what it means to be an introvert. We may begin life with a knack for realizing insights about patterns in the world, but it’s only later that we learn to explain these patterns to others or create tangible objects based on them, like essays or inventions. So our natural talents are often invisible to others, and may not even externally benefit others unless we learn extraverted skills to express them.
Also, we aren’t as motivated to seek external rewards. We don’t want a lot of the things that extraverts want, so we will prioritize different things. We want self-understanding more than material goods. We want to develop our personal moral compass more than relationships with others. We do our best work when we focus our effort on the things that matter to us.
However, this puts us at a competitive disadvantage in producing things that are valuable to other people. No matter our efforts, we are likely to be under-appreciated. We labor for years to understand our feelings or gain insights about the universe, but others only see a worthless “navel-gazer” unless we produce something—like a song or a business or a building. Yet because our efforts have first and foremost gone toward cultivating our inner world, it is exceptionally difficult to articulate our ideas in the physical world, whether as words or as artistic products.
And when we do try to express our ideas in a world of people vying for others’ attention, we are outcompeted by extraverts. Why? Because communication and producing things in the physical world are among their first and most natural talents. An introvert’s novel or theory or opinion is usually not going to catch people’s attention as well as an extravert’s. Even if it has real value to others, they may not listen long enough or appreciate it when they do.
In many ways, life is just harder when you’re an introvert. My interviews with other introverts have confirmed this. Not only are we at a competitive disadvantage, but we often feel very different from those around us, even if we’re similar in other ways, like culture and religion. Social interactions happen too quickly and frequently. Mainstream venues of networking and entertainment are draining. Job applications require more energy than we have, and more credentials than we can get. Relationships require too much time with other people. No one wants to buy what we are best at producing. And we can’t even understand ourselves, since we lack a voice in the society that determines what to study and talk about. Few people care to study how we think, let alone provide ways for us to conceptualize what it means to be introverted.
As bad as this is, the reason this situation is oppressive is because things don’t have to be this way. We could set up our world differently. The fact that things are set up how they are shows that the world is built to give extraverts an advantage over introverts—whether intentionally or not. We aren’t given job applications, work environments, communication norms, relationship expectations, and frameworks of self-understanding that match our way of being. Instead, they favor extraverts and disfavor introverts. Because we are naturally more inclined toward the life of the mind than the physical world, our talents aren’t as valued, our ways of being aren’t as studied, our needs aren’t as understood, and our voices aren’t as likely to be heard in discussions that privilege the extraverted communication style. As givers of knowledge, we aren’t as persuasive since we don’t speak the extraverts’ language and are unfairly biased against because of it. In relationships, we are seen as different, weird, and unattractive. We have to work at draining careers or else accept impoverished conditions of life—or sometimes both.
Studies even show that those higher on the trait of extraversion have a pervasive advantage in outcomes at work. Higher extraversion gives an advantage in motivation, positive feelings, fluency in communication, and effectiveness of performance. People high on extraversion are happier, do better at work, and have better relationships, just because of their personality (Psychology of Extraversion, CH 1, 3). They are healthier and have better brain development (CH 4). They have happier marriages, enjoy altruistic activities more, and find more enjoyment in social interactions (CH 6). Extraversion makes someone less likely to face job burnout (CH 11). In fact, researchers have even proposed that if we could increase people’s extraversion, we could make them happier (CH 1). Being more extraverted typically means being higher on optimism and happiness, (CH 9), and those who are both more emotionally stable and more extraverted are happier across a variety of cultures (CH 3, 13).
In conclusion, given the social practice of valuing people according to extravert standards and what someone can produce in the physical world, introverts are oppressed. According to Cudd’s four criteria:
As introverts, we’re trapped in a bird cage, and usually we don’t even realize it.
Do you agree that introverts are oppressed? And assuming this is true, how do we create an introvert-friendly world? This will be the task of this blog, and I invite you to join me as we explore it in more depth over the following months and years together.
Articles from The Psychology of Extraversion, Chapters 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, 11, and 13 (various authors)
Elaine Aron: The Highly Sensitive Person (Note: In a future blog post, I will argue that Highly Sensitive Persons and introverts are the same.)
Susan Cain: Quiet
Ann Cudd: Analyzing Oppression
Duffy and Chartrand: The Extravert Advantage (article)
Marilyn Frye: Oppression
Jenn Granneman: The Secret Lives of Introverts
Carl Jung: Psychological Types
Geoffrey Miller: The Mating Mind
Marti Olsen Laney: The Introvert Advantage
Jonathan Rauch: Caring For Your Introvert
Wilmot, et al.: Extraversion Advantages at Work
Robert Wright: The Moral Animal
I’m Harrison Paul, the Introvert Philosopher. I hold an MA in Philosophy from San Francisco State University and wrote my thesis on using moral education in schools to resist the influence of advertising on politics. I am the author of five-book introvert epic fantasy series Kaybree versus the Angels. I am also actively seeking publication for my nonfiction book The Quiet Minority: Why Introverts are Oppressed and How We Can Stop It and the Aurora Lightwalker series of far-future YA introvert novels.