Is Extroversion a Virtue?

That’s a question posed in Susan Cain’s QuietAlong with that comes the corresponding question: is introversion a sin? It is interesting that the context in which this arises is Cain’s visit to Saddleback Church, at the suggestion of Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the ChurchTrue, no one says either that being an extrovert is virtuous, or that the introverted are sinners or somehow spiritually lacking. Rather, all this is inferred from the ethos of the worship experience-enthusiastic singing, jumbo-tron images, greeting neighbors, lengthy messages. As McHugh and Cain discussed the experience, one of their observations was that it was all about non-stop communication. There was no quiet, no silence, no reflection. None of this was a criticism of the message of Saddleback, or by extension of the evangelical movement. Rather, it was the case that for those who don’t like big crowds, lots of socializing, and who need times of reflection or even aloneness, that the implicit message was that there must be something wrong with you.

Quiet

Cain would contend that this is a part of a larger cultural trend that seems to celebrate the charismatic extrovert–whether in religion, politics, sports, business, or the media. It is not that she has it out for extroverts, or for extrovert-driven churches. Rather, her contention is that extroverts and introverts are wired differently and that each has a unique contribution to bring. She opens her book with the example of introverted Rosa Parks, whose quiet civil disobedience launched the Civil Rights movement that was greatly enhanced by partnership with extrovert Martin Luther King, Jr, whose preaching and leadership gave meaning and direction to the resistance she began.

My wife and I have spent our adult lives around evangelical sub-culture, and for the most part I would agree with Cain’s characterization. What has often struck both of us is that the church unwittingly tries to turn us into extroverts rather than tries to understand the gift that our introversion brings. In Cain’s much watched TED talk, she observes how many of the great religious leaders from Moses to Jesus to others like Muhammad and the Buddha all spoke out of their wilderness experiences. She movingly describes her rabbi grandfather, a shy, gentle introvert with an apartment full of books who brought to his weekly messages at synagogue a depth of insight and wisdom that shaped a religious community.  A breath of life to us in recent years is to have a fellow introvert for a pastor. His sensitivity, his reflectiveness, his love of study and insightfulness into both his own journey and others brings strikingly fresh insights from our scriptures for our lives.

What is the gift that introverts bring the church, and to society? In various forms, it is often a creativity that comes out being someone who listens, observes and reflects. Introverts may bring perspective, inventiveness, and artistry into what is needed, what is missing, out of their times alone. One thing that isn’t understood about introverts is that they actually value community and want to contribute. But often they speak quietly and are not the first to speak. Often, to be heard in a culture of extroverts means to press uncomfortably into conversations where the quick response in word and action is the currency of the day. Sometimes, we need quick responses and actions. But sometimes we also need the considered response and care-full action that comes out of reflection. What might happen if we have more partnerships like Parks and King, or Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs? What could it mean for our churches and other institutions to welcome the gifts that both extroverts and introverts bring? What would it mean to create spaces at work and worship that allow for both sociality and solitude?

Perhaps that is worthy both quiet reflection and considered discussion.

8 thoughts on “Is Extroversion a Virtue?

  1. Great thoughts, Bob. I was thinking of this question myself earlier this week. I was listening to a podcast about the Winter Olympics, and a snowboarder kept remarking about how “strange” the 2-time gold medalist Shaun White is, because he likes to practice by himself. The snowboarder came up with all sorts of explanations for this, but I just kept thinking, it sounds like White is just an introvert and prefers time to himself. It was very interesting that they felt the need to play armchair psychologist to explain why White was so “different” (when, in reality, I bet there are plenty of athletes just like White).

    • Yes, it is interesting the apologies introverts feel led to make for their own behavior so they can appear to be the socially acceptable extrovert. It sounds to me that White’s alone time in practice is a critical part of his creative excellence in snow-boarding. Imagine the day when we recognize that this “difference” is good rather than something to be apologized for!

  2. This is a great post! It is definitely something the evangelical church needs to understand more deeply. I commented to my pastor once about his daughter being an introvert, and he challenged me on that like I had called her a sinner. A book that I personally found very helpful was “Introvert Advantage” in helping me understand myself as an introvert.

    • Thanks, Mike. It is amazing how God creates us in various ways for partnership, male and female, different gifts and introvert and extrovert. How sad when something that is God’s creative work is deemed to be sin.

  3. Pingback: Color Blind « Bob on Books

  4. Hi there, I just saw this post. I’m currently reading Quiet for the first time, although I’ve read various articles by and about Susan Cain. As an introvert, highly sensitive person, and an evangelical, I’ve felt the pressure to conform to the extraverted majority, often in terribly uncomfortable ways. My last church was extremely large (over 1000 people) and when the leadership switched communion from stay-in-your-seat to get-up-and-go-up-front, I became panicky in the shuffle of the crowd. I couldn’t handle the extra stimulation of people all around me. Eventually my husband and I had to talk about it with an elder and come to a compromise. We’re at a smaller church now, with less than 300 members, and I can better handle going forward for communion because the crowd is smaller, but it’s still uncomfortable for me.

    • Thanks so much for writing me your thoughts! What I liked so much about Cain’s book is that, though not a Christian, she talks about how introverts are a gift to their communities, religious or otherwise. I think what has happened (I am also an evangelical) is that the extroverts have defined many of our social norms in church life in terms of their own temperament, probably because they get their energy there. I wonder if one of the things we need to do more (and I say this as a fellow introvert) is help our extroverted fellow believers understand how wemight be losing a third of the church or missing a third of unreached people because we do not make space for introverts–to include quiet and reflection as well as more communal expressions. I’m so glad you spoke up and have found a situation you can handle better and hope both you and they discover the ways you can be a gift to that community.

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