In 1950, Alfred Whitney Griswold ’29 GRD ’33, the Yale president at the time, pitched alumni on the perfect undergraduate, the kind he promised his recruiters were looking for. This ideal candidate wasn’t a scholar, but a team player. He wouldn’t stay in to study, but went out for drinks at Mory’s.
“[He’s] not a beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man,” Griswold said.
Yale has changed since then. Our deans look for diversity. But there is still pressure to be like Griswold’s extroverted ideal — an ideal that many students, including myself, find impossible to achieve.
My freshman adviser to told me to sign up for every club I saw at the extracurricular fair. I took his advice, and my inbox was promptly flooded with invitations to meetings, mixers and icebreakers. I was too shy to go to any of the events, but I became more anxious with each missed opportunity.
I am an introvert. I have always found myself more comfortable with a small circle of friends than in a crowd. Parties, for me, are plagued by “Mission Impossible”-like countdowns. How long can I keep up a conversation before the timer runs out?
I’m not hopeless in my reticence. I’ve learned, over time, simple methods to prevent myself from wearing out. I retreat to the library after stressful classes. I know the best places in East Rock to walk alone. This year I insisted on getting a single.
Still, I have a passing fascination with the other version of my life, the one where I wouldn’t have to be alone for hours after seeing too many people. Would I be happier if I could go to Toad’s without dreading a panic attack?
* * *
Thirty-four people, by my count, sat in the lecture room before Davis Nguyen ’15 began to speak. Most of them sat by themselves, two or three chairs away from each other. Two girls chatted in a corner. In the back of the room, there were three guys in athletic shorts.
Nguyen had advertised his presentation in a campuswide email that he sent out Monday night. He received over 300 replies, many more than he expected.
The first slide of his PowerPoint presentation glowed on the projection screen. “Speak for the Meek,” it said — the title of Nguyen’s new organization. He said that he found a way to help students like himself out of their shells: a stock claim in these kind of lectures.
This advice comes primarily from Nguyen’s own experience. When he came to Yale, he was several pounds overweight. His high school rarely sent people to the Ivy League, and he was worried that, compared to his peers, “he wouldn’t have anything to say.”
Nguyen became interested in introversion after conducting a research project this spring on the lack of Asian CEOs and government leaders. He concluded that there was something in his cultural heritage that was holding him back.
This revelation lead Nguyen to “100 Days of Rejection Therapy,” an inspirational Web series founded by Jia Jang. In it, Jang commits himself to a challenge a day for 100 days. Some challenges succeed, such as when he asks for doughnuts in the shape of Olympic rings at a Krispy Kreme. Others fail miserably, such as when he asks to borrow $100 from a stranger.
Rejection isn’t as frightening as it seems, Nguyen pointed out. He then followed this example with a series of tips, culled from his own experience: speak up in seminar; don’t doubt your first instincts. A girl sitting next to me took out her notepad and dutifully jotted down each point. Finally, Nguyen reminded the kids in the lecture hall that though these tips may seem obvious, they are more difficult in practice.
“Until you apply what you learn,” he said, “you’re still the same way you always will be.”
* * *
According to Carl Jung, who first posed the definition, an introvert is someone who loses energy the more they spend time around other people. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy. They simply need time on their own to recharge.
The problem (if there is a problem) with this type of behavior is that it’s inherently isolating. Introverts don’t tend to have large numbers of friends. Extroverts, those who tend to speak more loudly and quickly than everyone else, often overshadow, or disregard, their quiet peers.
In college, this discrepancy can create a sense of natural inequality. Those who are outgoing get the opportunity to share their opinions freely in classes and in social settings, whereas those who are more reserved may struggle to get a word in.
But while the extroverted may be more eager to speak in class, they don’t necessarily make the best points. Professor Leslie Brisman, who has taught at Yale for over 40 years, sees this problem in the way many professors lead their seminars. He particularly dislikes the method of opening class discussion with a casual question, such as asking students to give a reaction to the reading, instead of providing a structured introduction to the topic at hand.
“This supposed openness and informality all too often proves to be just an invitation to the most irrepressible speakers to take over,” he said.
Psychology research confirms that the standard school setting is better suited to extroverted personalities. In 2011, Robert Coplan led a study in which elementary school teachers were given profiles of hypothetical students. The teachers consistently assigned kids who were described as shy with lower levels of intelligence.
“Whoever designed the context of the modern classroom was certainly not thinking of the shy or quiet kids,” Coplan said in a 2012 interview with Education Week.
But these roadblocks can be overcome. Susan Cain, in her TED talk “The Power of Introverts,” discusses the struggle many people face under pressure to become more outgoing, or more socially successful.
She argues that introversion has merits of its own. She lists successful examples, some from history, of people who use their talents for introspection and self-reflection to become better writers and even public speakers.
In a 2012 interview with Scientific American, Cain says, “Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.”
* * *
I’m not afraid of seminar. When I listened to Cain’s TED talk, I recognized a lot of the lessons I have taught myself. Still, I have trouble in other situations, especially when I can’t control, or predict, what will happen next.
I am prone to panic attacks, especially in large groups of people or when I’m under a lot of stress. Midway through a conversation, for instance, I’ll feel my breath become shallow. My arms will shiver, and my wrists will sweat.
When this happens, I don’t have many options but to return to my room. I stare at the ceiling, or count my breaths slowly. Sometimes it helps to watch a 20-minute sitcom on my laptop, or to reread passages from an old book.
Eventually, the feeling passes. My breathing deepens, and I can start to be productive. Sometimes this means sending an apologetic text. Other times, I actually have to start working on the essay, or article, that has been haunting me.
So much of the discussion of introversion, or social anxiety, depends on the notion of change. Be more social. Learn to force a smile. But there’s a limit to how much I can change. I can lessen my anxiety, but I don’t know if it’ll go away.
This summer, the day I had planned to get on a flight for my junior year of college, I had one of my panic attacks. I kept thinking about the way our tour guides pitch Yale to visiting groups. You’ll always be surrounded, they say, there’s so much energy.
On that day, my mom found me in my room, lying on my bed and clutching a pillow to my chest. My duffel bag was sitting on the floor in front of me, half-packed. She asked if I was planning on taking the pillow with me to New Haven.
“Watch me try,” I said.
Correction: Sept. 15
A previous version of this article misstated Professor Leslie Brisman’s critique of how some faculty members begin seminars. He specifically targeted the method of asking students to provide reactions to the reading, not casual introductions in general.