Stand Together, Think Apart

In North America, we take pride in empowering everyone to “be themselves”. Many campaigns, from the BLM to gay pride, fight to give people a space to be themselves. Schools and workplaces hang up posters encouraging self-expression. Yet those same schools are structured to favour specific groups of people. It makes me wonder, are people really free to be themselves?

Recently I took 10 days off, drove to BC, went surfing, hiked a mountain, went bungee jumping, watched salmon spawn, and enjoyed a lot of time alone. People were always surprised I was travelling alone. Most people seem to think that one must take a road trip with others. I am just the opposite: I think it’s important to be alone; that’s when I get my best ideas. 

People’s views of my travel habits reveal a unique aspect of our society: extroversion is the standard approach. Legally, I was free to travel wherever I wanted. Society though, expected me to behave differently. If society pressures us to fit in, we are not actually empowered to be ourselves, are we? 

Many parts of our history help explain why our society and culture have become very extroverted. Many other structures demonstrate how we continue to solely promote extroversion. By looking around the world, we can understand how other countries do a better job of creating a home for both introverts and extroverts. 

In the history of the world, North America has was settled very recently. Life on the frontier was hard and forced people to band together to survive. Several men who worked together could build their homes more quickly than if each one worked alone to make a single home. If there were enemies, the settlers could band together and create a stronger force. And if there were famines, having a community helped create a compassionate network.  There were distinct advantages to working together. Even today, much can be accomplished by collaboration. Because of the advantages of being a skilled networker, people began to learn and even teach these skills. 

We are taught that “all white, North Americans are settlers”. This is true. I’d like to point out that all people are settlers. Yes, all people. If everyone descended from Adam and Eve, everyone living anywhere but the garden of Eden is a settler. Even the people we consider to be “nationals” are descended from settlers. Every nation is a nation of settlers. Most other nations have changed as they were enabled to focus not on survival but on intelligence or discovery. For example, Germany, Greece and France were great centers of revolution and thought. 

Even though it has been hundreds of years since the first settlers came to North America, our North American society maintains a very extroverted structure. Our children are put into schools with many other children. This is a great way to provide children with social contacts. It may be an efficient way to teach, but it’s not really effective. 

Extroverts may enjoy the social buzz. Introverts likely don’t. As a place of learning, a communal format of continual distraction makes no sense. Study after study has shown how the human brain cannot focus on many things at one time. Children can not concentrate on reading about the cell structure or practice their fractions when Johhny is whispering, Susy is tapping her pencil and Richard is asking to go to the bathroom. There’s no distinction between the extroverted brain and the introverted brain when focusing, the human brain just can’t take distractions.  

But because extroversion is the default approach, very few question this learning structure. Many defendants of traditional schools (who decided that the most recent form of education would be called “traditional”?) argue that the value of schools is their ability to teach “social skills”. So kids will be put into groups for projects and evaluated based on team performance instead of individual effort. 

But isn’t a school for teaching intelligence and reasoning? Why do we need to teach “social skills”? This type of program developed because of the importance, we place on being able to interact socially at an advanced level. 

I think that our system has become lazy. We realize adults need to interact socially, so someone created an idea and threw it into a school. I don’t think mixing distraction and focus or learning and social development is a good idea. Some of the most relational people I know are Philipino. It seems that each person I meet is able to quickly become their friend. They have such an ability to naturally chat and relate. Yet, I have never heard of them teaching “social interaction” in schools. 

Schools aren’t the only institutions that are extrovert focused. At work, we form teams and are pushed to communicate constantly with coworkers. At times, it seems that the only way to decide things in our modern society is to sit for hours around a rectangular table talking. It’s the grown-up version of group projects: we are valued on the team performance, not individual accomplishments. 

As adults, we continue the “social training” that began when we were children to increase our value in the extroverted world. Many of the most popular self-help books teach “extroversion skills”. These books teach us how to be charismatic, make friends, impress superiors, appear successful and, sell products or ideas. It could very well be that similar books are being read all over the world. However, in my interactions with individuals from other countries, I have noticed a difference in behaviour. 

In the west, we are taught that concisely conveying thoughts is a sign of intelligence. We are encouraged to articulate and talk our way to respect. On the flip side, when I have chatted with German friends, I have been amazed at their ability to listen. I have much greater respect for that and we are often able to quickly work our way to talking about deeper topics because both of us feel heard and valued. It is always a personal choice to listen instead of talk, our society’s view of articulation as a sign of good ideas is flawed and puts pressure on people.

Our society has been structured by default, instead of intention. We need to ask ourselves what we value. Extroverts are skilled and valuable. They naturally form relationships, create excitement and include others. Most of the societal structures have been set up to favour extroverts. It seems there was little thought into if that was the most effective method. 

When we look at history, many of the greatest minds worked alone. Gravity was discovered by Isaac Newton, who sat alone. The Sistine chapel was painted, not by a team, but by Michelangelo. The great poet Henry David Thoreau, is famous for valuing his alone time.  Despite these examples, our society seems determined that collaboration is the only way to work. 

Individually, I am sure that people acknowledge that both introverts and extroverts are skilled. But the very structures of society are mainly extroverted. Maybe we can take a page out of the Philipino book to learn that social skills should be natural parts of interaction instead of distractions built into schools. Maybe we could learn from the French and Greek who valued intelligence. I have learned that deep thought comes from time alone.  

My travels to BC required almost 50 hours of driving. I’m not good with directions, so it was pretty common to make a wrong turn and need to figure out how to get back on track. Through the process, I was able to strengthen my growth mindset by practicing flexibility and awareness of my mental self-talk. If I had been travelling with someone, surely I wouldn’t have made as many wrong turns. But I might have also felt pressure to perform more as well. Through the many hours on the road and time hiking alone, I was able to think deeply and widely. I had lots of ideas about work, my writing and life. I got to know myself better. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with others. 

If it’s the structures of society that hinder introverts, how do we change that? I think we start by consciously valuing diversity. When someone brings up a perspective you disagree with, instead of trying to convince them of your view, try to understand theirs. Don’t push for conformity! When someone decides to do something differently, like travelling alone, let’s encourage them, instead of saying how odd it is.



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