The noise of the school bus, its engine rumbling and gears squeaking as we turned into my neighborhood, competed with the rise and fall of students laughing, shouting, and singing. Back then, most kids preferred the aisle seats so they could straddle the rows, easily chatting with friends on the other side, or pivoting to connect with people behind them.
I always chose the window seat because it gave me the chance to turn my attention outside, away from the noise and the quick banter of older kids I didn’t know and who didn’t know me. Usually, I could watch the passing landscape through the fogged up glass, content to keep to myself, and anxiously await the moment when we’d reach my bus stop, and I’d finally be able to put another sixth grade day behind me.
That winter afternoon, however, a girl across the aisle started talking to anyone willing to listen about her family’s trip to Ireland. Her comments caught my attention, because my father had spent a lot of time researching genealogy, and Irish heritage was an important part of my family life. Cautiously, I asked her what part of Ireland she’d visited. Before she could answer, Tim, an 8th grader, sitting in the aisle seat beside me, spoke up.
“Who said that? Did Ryan actually talk to someone? You never talk to people. Go back to your window,” he said, as he grasped my shoulders, squeezed, and sharply turned me back toward the glass.
I was furious, but I struggled to come up with a response. Later that afternoon, and in the days that followed, I would think of many witty, powerful comebacks, but in that moment, the words refused to emerge from my throat. So I simply kept my gaze on the passing neighborhood, silently willing the bus to reach my stop.
What Other People Miss About Me
I may have intuitively understood it earlier, but in my memory, that bus ride in sixth grade was the first moment when I recognized that I am an introvert. For many years, I hated that aspect of my personality. I resented the fact that, as outraged as I’d been by what Tim had said and done, there was a piece of me that had actually felt relief at being removed from the social situation. As much as I didn’t like feeling left out, I also felt real comfort in being left alone.
About twenty years later, I found myself in graduate school, sitting in a Modern British Fiction class. I loved the novels we read, often felt inspired by the professor, and had written what I felt was a strong draft of an essay on the novel we were discussing, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. That afternoon, the professor had split the class into small groups. I listened quietly as several others shared their thoughts. Many of their opinions matched what I had written in my essay, but once they’d shared it, I felt silly simply repeating what someone else had said. After about ten minutes, Lesley, the woman sitting to my right in our circle, turned to me and said, “Are you gonna participate at all? Did you even read the book?”
I pretended to laugh it off, even though I was certain she hadn’t intended to be funny, and I stumbled through a vague comment that was just a rehash of what a classmate had already said. Others quickly picked up the thread of conversation, and I waited it out until the end of class. My introversion had slain me yet again.
The bus story with Tim and the grad class story with Lesley are just two of many instances in my life when my introverted nature felt like a liability, like my life would not measure up to my hopes simply because I am not as outgoing as others. As time has gone by, however, I’ve come to realize that introversion is just one part of who I am. What Tim didn’t realize that day on the bus, is that I had two extremely close friends — kids who knew me well, who I’d spent hours with, talking about movies, playing basketball, swimming, arguing about politics, complaining about siblings, and generally doing what close friends do. What Tim didn’t see was that I did talk to people — I talked all the time to people close to me, with a depth that went well beyond superficial conversations on the back of a bus. And Tim never would have guessed that years later, I’d actually enjoy playing guitar and singing on a stage in front of hundreds of people.
Lesley was missing something, too. I may have been reluctant to speak up during that small group discussion, but that side of me does not change the fact that I had read carefully, reflected deeply, and written thoughtfully about the novel. What Lesley failed to recognize is that, as an introvert, I was able to engage with the themes and consider the author’s intent in a much more meaningful manner than simply spouting a few comments during a fifteen minute small group discussion. In a world of often rushed and shallow chatter, quiet thoughtfulness can be extremely powerful.
Introversion Is Not a Liability to Be Overcome
Much of society falls into the trap of negative stereotype when it comes to introverts. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet, writes, “Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” However, more and more studies suggest that we are beginning to see the value that introverts can offer. Fortune magazine notes that several traits can make an introvert as strong a leader as an extroverted counterpart, suggesting that introverts are more likely to listen to their colleagues, fostering stronger collaboration, and that they benefit from the tendency to think through challenges deliberately, leading to more prudent decision making.
There are still moments when I find myself daydreaming about the life of a social butterfly, about effortlessly bouncing from one group to another at a party, or being able to easily strike up a conversation with a stranger in an elevator. But while I might daydream from time to time, I don’t wish to be that person any longer because I understand and appreciate the benefits of my quieter side.
The “single story” of introversion is one of deficiency, suggesting that we should all strive to be outgoing extroverts. But there’s more to the story than that. Introversion is not a detriment. It’s not a liability to be overcome. Introverts simply prefer having a small number of very close friends rather than a thousand acquaintances. As an introvert, I simply prefer to reflect, consider, and deliberately think through whatever is presented to me rather than quickly grab the mic and share my opinions. I recognize that listening to others first and speaking later — or maybe not even speaking at all — can have tremendous power. And when I view it through that lens, I value this side of myself, and I hope that others will see me as an introvert, even if I may be too shy to point it out to them.
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