Columns

Savello ’18: Speaking up for introverts

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, November 18, 2016

Particularly on college campuses, the dichotomy between the introvert and extrovert has become a prevalent force in explaining preferences in social behaviors. But this dichotomy has more important purposes aside from determining whether a person prefers Netflix over a party. The introversion-extroversion split has the potential to negatively impact some students’ academic experiences if left unconsidered and thus unchecked. I know this from personal experience.

I see this dichotomy play out most often in small, discussion-based classes where participation is mandatory. In these spaces, it’s not uncommon for talkative, more extroverted students to dominate conversation, as they tend to interject with comments without raising their hands. While raising your hand might not always seem like a necessity, it’s a formal pause that a lot of introverts rely on as a means of working up the courage to talk in class. On multiple occasions, I have found myself having to meet with professors to explain to them that I didn’t participate that day because I was trying to bring myself to speak but was constantly overshadowed by the other students.

Here the introvert-extrovert dichotomy works to the extroverts’ advantage, allowing them to direct class discussion and take up more space than necessary to get their points across. Though they may not realize it, in addition to being unproductive, their excessive commentary and interjections create an intimidating environment for introverts. Introverts then find themselves at risk of missing out on participation points — not to mention the intrinsic value of participation — for reasons that are not their fault. In addition, the productivity of the conversation can be harmed by the absence of important ideas. And the cycle only perpetuates itself, as the silence of introverts empowers the extroverts.

In addition to receiving lower participation grades, introverts may also struggle paying attention in class as a result of extrovert-dominated conversations. Why pay attention after your ideas have been edged out and the conversation hijacked by other students? I’ve noticed these effects in myself: I’ve grown detached from a class because the anxiety from having to outspeak others overwhelms me. This is particularly true in classes in foreign languages, where speaking both validates your ideas and proficiency.

The typical Brown student attitude adds a further dimension to this challenge. Brown students, who are highly intelligent and articulate, are by their very nature dedicated to trying to share their knowledge and demonstrate their mastery of subject matter. Impressing professors and classmates is also incentivized in such an environment. But this becomes a problem when more outspoken students believe that their ideas are more important than those of their peers, which can lead to a toxic environment of arrogance and intimidation. Introverts internalize a sense of inferiority linked not to the merit of their ideas but to their comfort expressing them.

There is no ethical way to limit overly talkative students’ participation, but if left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on other students’ academic experiences. What I have found in my personal experiences is that the professor can be a useful resource for mitigating these issues ­— but only if he or she is made aware of them. In some small classes, professors purposefully call on students who have not talked as much as the discussion progresses. This is helpful to introverts because it formally invites them into the conversation and eliminates the pressure to assert themselves. I have also had professors who respond to body language, simply stating, “I see you nodding. Do you agree?” or “You look disgusted at that line; why is that?” This vigilance on the professors’ end can be really productive in making introverts feel more welcome in a rather intimidating environment. And if professors are not doing this on their own, it never hurts to meet with them and ask for such accommodations.

Ultimately, everyone’s ideas deserve to be heard, regardless of where a person falls on the extroversion scale. But introverts often need a little bit of a push to get started — and extroverts sometimes need to limit their excessive commentary to make room for other students. It’s all about balance.

Samantha Savello ’18 can be reached at samantha_savello@brown.edu.

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