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Room for wallflowers

As a kid, I dreaded one thing more than monsters and math: The Great Family Reunion Kiddie Talent Show. Come Christmastime, our extended family would gather ’round a makeshift stage while the little ones each performed a “talent” for a chance to win more presents. A dozen uncles and aunts and ates and kuyas watching. The living room bustling with music and laughter. The grownups incessantly prodding. It was a huge introvert nightmare.

My coperformers—my cousins—were ready with their song-and-dance numbers, but I sat in a corner, silent and drenched in cold sweat, my heartbeat so loud I could hear it. I didn’t want the spotlight on me, and had to wear down the grownups with repeated refusals.

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Childhood mercifully passed without giving me posttraumatic stress disorder, as far as I can tell. But the pressure against introversion persists to this day. There seems to be no room for wallflowers in our culture. Not many Filipinos even recognize the inherent differences in our temperaments—that while a great deal of us are sociable, lively extroverts, there are those who are just naturally quiet and introverted. This creates a more difficult environment for Filipino introverts.

For one, introverted traits are usually misinterpreted as less desirable. One of the biggest characteristics of an introvert is drawing energy from solitude, silence and internal interests instead of people, activities and external stimuli. This need for quiet is often misconstrued as being shy, asocial, a snob or a loner. Or, as Pinoys would say, “KJ,” “hindi marunong makisama,” “maarte.”

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In truth, introversion does not necessarily mean shyness or a lack of social skills. It is simply a different disposition. Some of the most successful public personalities in the world—from Bill Gates to J. K. Rowling to Steven Spielberg—are actually known introverts.

Neither is introversion an aversion toward people. Research has revealed that all sorts of people, including introverts, feel happier when they socialize; it’s just that introverts have lower tolerance for external stimulation and thus feel exhausted after too much socializing.

So when it comes to being with friends, an introverted person would prefer meaningful conversations with a friend or two, instead of a loud and lively party. Or, when they do party, introverts might find themselves gravitating toward a specific place in the room, hanging with only a couple of people instead of hobnobbing with the crowd.

These concepts are largely still alien to Filipinos, so much so that even parents can make a misjudgment of their introverted children. Perhaps it is also heightened by generational differences: Our parents grew up at a time when “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was pretty much a bible for living. (If my father could have programmed the contents of that book into my personality, he would have.)

It’s understandable that parents should get worried about their children not having as many friends as “normal” kids do. Or about their children “hiding” in the bedroom when there are guests in the house. Or about their children spending more time reading books than going out. But it’s also an ill-informed opinion to consider someone “not normal” or “not OK” when he or she is merely introverted.

Not understanding introversion may seem like a negligible matter, but it has intricate ways of preventing introverts from thriving.

In the classroom setting, for instance, a student who rarely participates in recitation is often dismissed as unintelligent. Worse, there are educators who try to browbeat quiet students out of their shells: We all know that one teacher who intentionally trains the attention of the whole class on the quiet student at the back, forcing the spotlight on him or her in an attempt to make him or her speak up. More educators need to understand that the last thing you should do to introverts is to embarrass them. It is a matter of patience, sensitivity and communication.

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Our highly extroverted culture has led to introverts viewing themselves as inferior, as though introversion were a flaw that they need to completely eliminate. Best-selling author Susan Cain, who is one of the leading advocates for the introverted, notes that there is a “secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grownups today.”

Among Filipinos, it is not uncommon for introverts to force themselves to be more sociable than they really are, for the sake of pakikisama or being considered “normal.” But there are consequences to this: A study suggests that acting falsely extroverted may lead to burnout and even cardiovascular disease.

It is a subtle stigma—a quiet one, if you may —that the introverted has to face daily. As with all other forms of stigma, there needs to be more understanding on this matter, an understanding that transcends cultural and generational mores.

On the other hand, introverts need to realize that it’s OK to not always be outgoing, loud or talkative. Yes, even in the Philippines.

As long as we are capably communicating with others and not locking ourselves up in our own little bubble, we don’t need to be sorry about our introversion. Not even about preferring two good friends instead of a dozen pals. Not even about being a contented wallflower at a party. Not even about—with due respect to my more vivacious relatives—refusing to participate in family talent shows.

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TAGS: family reunions, introversion
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