Widgets Magazine

To be an introvert

I watched my professor’s hand grip the thin Sharpie and produce tally after tally, a simple black stroke next to the names of my fellow classmates. In the Socratic-style seminar, the spoken topic bounced from mouth to mouth, morphing from twentieth-century Palestinian maps to medieval French cartography. Each new insight brought a wielding of pen in the corner of my eye. Even from across the makeshift table, I could identify my name on the list of more than a dozen. There were no tallies.

I looked at the clock; only fifteen more minutes left, and I still had nothing to contribute. Without an audible comment, it’s as though I didn’t do the hundred pages of dense reading. I didn’t struggle with the content, think about its argument or synthesize the important facts. Even with multiple scrawl-covered pages of notes in front of me, I still couldn’t interject myself into the verbal battlefield. No tally. No participation points.

Just from a small sampling of Stanford syllabi, I’ve seen class participation account for 5% to 50% of a student’s final grade. This percentage can include attendance, clicker questions, online posts, or in-class discussion. Over the past two quarters, the forced engagement in many of my classes, in addition to other aspects of Stanford’s high-intensity atmosphere, has left me wondering if it’s possible for an introvert to stay introverted.

For many people, to be introverted and to be an introvert are two distinct concepts, one an innocent adjective and the other a concrete noun, an identification, a label.

Susan Steele, owner of blog “Quietly Fabulous,” used to believe “what most dictionaries still say about introverts: shy, anti-social, loner. All terms with negative connotations.”  

We use labels to define others and give them preconceived attributes. It’s easier to organize people like library books in the Dewey Decimal System: extroverts and introverts in separate wings. Even then, there are a multitude of genres lining the crowded shelves in each wing. There are sections of shy introverts, go-getter introverts, calm extroverts and gregarious extroverts, just to name a few. Personality is a sliding scale of call numbers. However, many introverts have taken to embracing their label upon discovering it.  

“I realized that all those little things that I saw as deficiencies were actually traits that all introverts share. All of a sudden, I wasn’t a freak or a bad person,” stated Michaela Chung, author of “The Irresistible Introvert” and founder of website “Introvert Spring.”  

My reaction to finding out I was an introvert — a Myers-Briggs’ INFJwas no different. More recently, I sat with several friends from my dorm in the dining hall discussing this very article. When I disclosed my personality type, the two girls next to me burst out with laughter. They, too, were fellow introverts and INFJs (the rarest type comprising of 1-2% of the world’s population). The instant connection the three of us felt is representative of the introvert community as a whole, but I wondered why we didn’t realize the similarities sooner. Had I hidden my introverted traits to better adapt to college life?

Chung agreed: “Most introverts grew up hearing the message that to be successful, likable and accepted, you must conform to the extrovert ideal.”

To what extent is this true for students at Stanford?  Besides Admit Weekend, a prospective freshman’s first taste of life on the farm is NSO (New Student Orientation), the week before fall quarter classes commence.  For any student, getting acquainted with a new living situation is already stressful enough, but factor in two dozen social events over a five-day period and it’s an introvert’s nightmare.  

I came to Stanford ready to be the most extroverted version of myself.  I channeled my mom’s “talk to the stranger in the grocery store line” attitude the minute I stepped onto campus, because that’s the only way I’d be able to make friends.

“If we get to the bottom line, society values people who are comfortable with others and who can make others feel comfortable.  We deem them trustworthy and safe,” said Beth Buelow, author, coach, speaker, and founder of “The Introvert Entrepreneur.” 

Although I love being around people, my social batteries drain after a certain amount of time, and drain even faster when I’m around a large group of strangers. After the first day of NSO, I was homesick, uncomfortable and ready for the world’s longest nap in my new bed. The upcoming events and forced interactions loomed over my head like finals week. I desperately wanted to make friends but not in this setting.

By the end of a very long week, I concluded that NSO was built for extroverts. It resembled my days in elementary school: wearing nametags, sharing fun facts and participating in group activities. With barely any downtime the first few days, I ended up skipping both optional and required events later on. Because I chose to organize my closet or FaceTime my family, I missed out on forming an initial friend group.

These consequences ultimately motivated me to change my strategy. I adapted a new persona, one that didn’t match my childhood nickname, “Miss Melancholy,” at all. I hung out in lounge every night, went to several frat parties and even signed up to be my dorm’s “Birthday Fairy.”  Several of my friends even mistook me for an actual extrovert. I didn’t recognize myself, although my time as an extremely extroverted introvert was fruitful. I learned the names of my roommates, found some really great friends (even one from my hometown), and grew comfortable with Stanford’s expansive campus.  

Now with two quarters at The Farm under my belt, I’ve settled back into some of my introverted ways. I spend less time in the lounge to concentrate on my schoolwork but reward myself with social interaction after I’ve finished. I also periodically accompany my friends to smaller dorm parties but skip the rowdy frat party. I discovered a happy medium without touching either extreme end of the personality scale.  

As founder of the popular introvert blog “Introvert, Dear Jenn Granneman stated, “Introversion and extroversion aren’t all-or-nothing traits.  At times, even the most introverted person can act outgoing.”

Over this past quarter, I’ve also learned to take advantage of graded class participation. Even though none of my professors keep tallies this quarter, I promised myself I wouldn’t focus on that. No matter how few times I contribute in class, I choose to share thoughts of which I am proud. I no longer worry about the quantity, but the quality of my contributions. Because of this decision, I have found class discussions about Thomas Jefferson, eighteenth-century women’s medicine and peers’ short stories to be much more enjoyable.  

New York Times best-selling author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” and renowned Ted Talks speaker Susan Cain quietly told me over the phone, “If you speak with conviction, people will feel that. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking softly or loudly or with an accent or not. None of those things matter. It’s the conviction that comes through. People that are quietly assertive can be incredibly effective and influential.”

Stanford’s highly collaborative, spirited atmosphere does make it difficult for more introverted people to thrive, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. All it takes is a conscious choice to balance the extroverted culture and embrace your inner quiet being.  

Contact Emily Schmidt at egs1997 ‘at’ stanford.edu.