There are moments during the day when I’m not self-conscious, and I cherish them. Usually, they come when I’m tired, in that beautiful state of sleep deprivation when everything’s funny and nothing matters too much. Sometimes, when I’m working late in the stacks, I’ll sit in a darkened corner behind a maze of bookshelves, invisible and untraceable.
I breathe easier then.
Yale is a place that expects us not just to be social, but brilliantly social — a perfect (unattainable) combination of witty, friendly, dorky, attractive and connected. More than once during my first semester, I was amazed by how well adjusted my peers seemed: the ease with which they made people laugh, their fearlessness in approaching strangers, the way they flitted between different friend groups without batting an eye.
For a long time, this was my ideal. How could it not have been? Before we even arrive here, we are bombarded with an upbeat and cheery message: Yale will welcome you, Yale will be your paradise, if only you put yourself out there. Don’t let a second of those Bright College Years go to waste! Meet as many people as possible, join every club, be present everywhere and always and never stop having the time of your life!
What author Susan Cain described as the “extrovert ideal” — an ambient cultural preference for sociability, and its association with success — is alive and well at Yale. Often, when I try to explain this to my extroverted friends, I’m met with a mixture of skepticism and gentle dismissal. And even though this frustrates me to no end, I can understand the impulse. For my entire life, I have been taught — by friends, family, teachers and the self-help industrial complex — to see my introversion as a personal defect, something that can be overcome with a little courage and elbow grease.
This notion is destructive and false. The introvert-extrovert personality spectrum is one of the most-studied subjects in modern psychology, and nearly all the research points to a certain degree of biological determinism. It manifests from a very early age; in one long-term study, babies who were found to cry frequently (i.e. were more sensitive to external stimuli) generally grew up quieter and more reserved, whereas babies who tearlessly and fearlessly interacted with their environment grew up to be outgoing and personable.
And even when introverts do force themselves to be social — to, as it were, “act extroverted” — it can take much more of a toll on their well-being. A friend of mine, who is active in campus organizations that require a lot of face-to-face interaction, has to reserve a few hours at the end of each day to “recharge.” When I enter a room full of people, my first impulse is to leave; every subsequent move I make, every smile and small talk exchange, is a tiny hurdle over which I have to leap. Often I wind up enjoying myself, but it takes effort.
I’m not writing this because I expect a sea change in the way Yale’s social life operates. In all probability, the Class of 2019 Facebook page will be dominated by the same 10 people from now until the end of time; some students will always be louder, more gregarious and more “fun-loving” than others. I applaud them for it.
I’m writing this because I would have been comforted to read it my freshman fall. To know that there was nothing wrong with not wanting to go out every night. To know that my self-worth didn’t depend on Facebook likes. And to know that I could leave just as much of an imprint on this place regardless of whether I was on YCC or writing in my room.
There is no one way to be successful here, and if we forget that, we do a lot of people an injustice. If you’re reading this and it resonates with you, feel free to come talk to me. I can be a little awkward at first, but I like to think I’m rather friendly.
We all deserve to breathe a little easier.
Henry Robinson is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .