Solitary Strength

by Aimee Sung | 7/24/14 8:50pm

Introverts need, and thrive from, alone time.

At Dartmouth and other colleges nationwide, where corporate recruiting sends us into a frenzy and professors emphasize class debate, the loud, more often than not, prevail over the reserved. When confidence and assertiveness border on arrogance and obtuseness, the voices of the Waldos and Eeyores among us tend to go unnoticed.

But in an environment that encourages extroversion as a vehicle of academic, career and social success, introverts are quietly overcoming hurdles and carving out their own paths to thrive.

During a week-long training session in D.C. during the Rockefeller Center’s First-Year Fellows program, Curtis King ’16 was the quiet guy no one knew much about — until he revealed his comedic side when he performed as a condescending snob in a skit.

King recalled that fellow participants with whom he had not previously exchanged a word approached him after the skit. He added that introverts have the advantage of selectively revealing themselves to people.

“Being an introvert isn’t a permanent label,” King said. “It’s uneven ground that differs in individual relationships, an unknown entity.”

Though introverts are sometimes stereotyped as “disinterested” or “anti-social,” they often possess the ability to break through and develop stronger one-on-one relationships, self-described introvert Xanthe Kraft ’16 said.

“Introverts know what it’s like to feel spent, and they tend to be more sensitive to community and inclusivity,” she said.

Jiyoung Song ’16, who serves in a leadership position in the Agape Christian Fellowship, said that leadership is an “inherent skill” separate from being an introvert or an extrovert. Being introverted, she said, should not become a source of insecurity.

Some introverts with whom I spoke described academic environments as particularly tough for those who do not want to speak up.

Kraft said she has difficulty participating in class, especially in larger ones that exceed 20 students. In her contemporary American fiction course this term, she said, some people speak “authoritatively,” whereas she feels unable to synthesize her thoughts into a “mini speech” as they do.

“Professors tend to try to understand what I’m saying and roll with it,” Kraft said.

King had a particularly challenging academic term his sophomore fall. In a discussion-based political economics class, he struggled to vocalize his opinions. He would usually wait until all eight of his classmates had spoken before he pitched in a final comment.

“It’s like diving off a cliff,” King said. “You’re glad you did it, but you’re constantly thinking about it until you do it.”

Song remembers a high school teacher who referred to the introverts in the class as “sponges” who merely absorb the ideas that others contribute.

Song characterized her first-year writing classes at the College as “competitive” and stressful. The extroverts seemed to stand out right away, and she said she could not demonstrate the full extent of her capabilities in these classes.

Song said she feels more comfortable in her current Latin class, which consists of a small group of students with whom she has taken Latin classes since freshman year. She has also taken three different classes with the professor.

Alice Wang ’16 said that reticence should not be equated with an inability or unwillingness to offer valuable opinions.

“It’s dangerous to assume that because people aren’t speaking in class, they don’t have anything significant to say,” Wang said.

For other Dartmouth introverts, coursework poses less of a problem than social endeavors do, particularly on a campus where Greek affiliation remains the norm. While Madeline Parish ’16 deems herself an introvert, she has no problem talking in class. But when faced with “high-intensity social situations,” like when she is surrounded by a large number of extroverts, she feels overwhelmed.

As much as she loves being affiliated with Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority and enjoys the company of her sisters, she finds weekly meetings challenging, she said, noting that the noise often causes her to leave.

Though she enjoyed rush overall, Parish has witnessed other introverts get lost in the Greek system, especially during rush, she said.

Kraft, a member of Sigma Delta sorority, found recruitment exhausting because of the amount of time devoted to making small talk with strangers. The “invigorating” moments for her surfaced when sisters of certain houses led her to more private locations for deeper conversations.

Even now, Kraft prefers unofficial social events organized on a whim via her house Listserv, like those that gather small groups of members for midday tea breaks, FoCo dinners, movie nights or hikes.

In part, Song did not consider rushing because she believes that recruitment is mostly based on first impressions.

“It’s difficult for me to feel comfortable and put my best foot forward in a very highly socially charged environment,” she said.

For King, one of the groups around which he feels most comfortable is his cross country team, a tight-knit social circle.

“You immediately get 10 to 25 guys you spend at least two to three hours with each day,” he said. “You become friends whether each person is an introvert or an extrovert.”

King said he tends to “ease into” relationships. Though he may not usually be the one to initiate conversations, he can be very outgoing once he has “built momentum.”

During the first month of his freshman year, King was frustrated when he could not seem to get past shallow introductions each time he met a person. Each meeting was a repetitive, meaningless exchange of “what’s your name,” “what’s your major” and “where are you from,” he said.

“Going out and meeting people to build the number of people you know and managing that seems draining to me,” King said.

Instead, he prefers to maintain a small pool of close friends and organically let that pool grow larger as he joins a new group or activity.

Wang thinks that college has made her more extroverted. As she grew closer to her freshman floor in the River cluster, she became accustomed to always having people around. She said that she realized she actually gains energy from social interactions.

Sophomore year constituted a “jolting experience” for her because she no longer had the ready, constant support of her freshman floor.

For others, alone time is their way of “refueling,” Parish said.

Song said after spending some time alone, she feels “more prepared” for the next time she is around people.

“I expel energy around people,” Kraft said. “But that makes every interaction very meaningful to me because it’s special time and energy I have.”

Parish said she likes socializing, but that she keeps her room exclusively reserved for alone time. In addition, she described introversion as a “spectrum.” Depending on the situation, she can adopt more extroverted qualities.

“People tend to confuse being introverted with shyness,” Parish said. “I’m an introvert, but I’m definitely not shy.”

In her French classes, Parish has experienced drill instructors on different points of the spectrum. When the instructor belongs to the more energetic side, she tends to withdraw into herself and get frustrated by drill. She meshes better with “calm” or “chill” instructors, whose attitude opens her up more, she said.

Serving as an Italian drill instructor, Parish said, was one of her favorite activities so far at Dartmouth.

“I love jobs where I get to work with people,” Parish said. “I love being social, but like everything else, in moderation.”

When Song went on the classics foreign study program to Rome her sophomore fall, she spent 10 weeks with the same group of 13 students. While abroad, she formed deep bonds with some of these students, especially with other introverts. Because she frequently chose to stay in the apartment for solitary moments as opposed to hitting up the town, she held intimate conversations with people she would not have gotten to know otherwise.

“I find it easier to open up to other introverts,” Song said. “I can feel the sincerity in their intentions, and their quietness is an appealing characteristic especially in a state of opening up and vulnerability.”