An edited version of this post originally appeared in InsideVandy.com.
I sit alone, my headphones tamped securely in my ears. Or at least, I pretend like I am sitting alone. The beat of my music mostly drowns out the lunchtime gossip, and my laptop screen creates a small but visible barrier between me and the yapping freshmen who daily descend upon the main dining hall here at Vanderbilt.
But I am not sitting alone. Today, I tried -- and failed -- to secure one of the eight two-person tables in the dining hall during the lunch rush, just as I try and fail almost every weekday. If I'm lucky, I can sometimes snag a four-person table. But today, I wasn't lucky, and instead have been forced to install myself at the corner of the gargantuan 24-person table.
Eating alone doesn't bother me. In fact, doing things alone in general doesn't bother me, because as an introvert, I need lots of time alone to recharge. Not only that, but for someone who's taking 18 hours of courses, I have to spend a lot of time studying, so if I can find extra time for homework (even if it's over a meal), I'll take it.
But this large communal table was not meant for singular studying, as the empty chairs around me attest. It is as if the seating arrangement itself is saying, "Well, yes, you can elect to go against all social norms by sitting at this 24-person table alone and spreading your books everywhere so it looks like you actually need the entire table, when we both know that the most space you need is a two-person table, max. But the empty seats around you will betray your social rebellion to passersby, thereby revealing you as the outcast that you really are!"
Funny the implicit social judgment that a piece of furniture can make.
Clearly, those empty seats are meant to be filled with other people, not left unused while I sit alone studying. Nowhere in any of the dining halls can I find a seating arrangement for just one person. All of the tables and chairs declare, silently but adamantly, "It is not good for man to eat alone."
Or at least, that's what college dining halls would have you believe. Indeed, all the university dining halls I have visited have had a strange obsession with communal tables. These tables, however, are only a symptom of a larger problem: society's marked preference for extroverts.
Extroversion is the generally accepted social norm, while introversion is seen as an "other," almost deviant behavior. Yes, you can choose to sit alone at lunch -- but as those three open chairs remind you (and everyone else in the vicinity), that's not the choice you're supposed to make.
However, in college the bias toward extroversion goes beyond wordless social situations like the table configuration in the dining hall. In fact, this favoritism sometimes go so far as to unintentionally punish introverts in the form of participation points.
Many professors grade participation based on how often you speak up in class, which gives extroverts an unfair advantage, since they tend to be more talkative than typically reserved introverts. Hate speaking in front of large groups? Prefer to stay quiet until you feel like you have a truly worthwhile comment to add to the discussion? Too bad -- you'd better get over these introverted tendencies, or your participation grade is probably going to suffer (as mine currently is in several larger lecture classes).
You extroverts who are reading may not have thought twice about the communal tables or participation grades until you came across this column. That's probably because so many of us introverts actually pretend to be extroverts, as Susan Cain, the author of "QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," points out. We introverts take on this facade because "talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends."
Basically, being an extrovert is considered better than being an introvert. However, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, about one half of Americans are introverts. That's a lot of people to marginalize, especially since there have been a number of famous and successful introverts throughout history. For example, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc. and inventor of the breakthrough Apple I and Apple II computers, preferred to work alone. In his memoir "iWoz," he even explained, "I don't believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee ... I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone ... Not on a committee. Not on a team." For introverts, this aloneness isn't welcome just in their work (or homework) lives, but also in their social lives. Famous actress Audrey Hepburn, also an introvert, claimed that "I have to be alone very often. I'd be perfectly happy if I spent Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That's how I refuel."
Collegiate situations like the dining hall tables or participation grading can make it seem like introversion is abnormal or even wrong. The social climate of college -- which revolves around roommates, classmates, parties and constantly being around lots of people -- only further enforces this impression. But as author and journalist Jonathan Rauch explains in his article "Caring for your introvert," introversion "isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: 'I'm okay, you're okay -- in small doses.'"
In other words, just because society is more accepting of extroversion does not mean that introverts are deviants who need to be cured. Introversion may not be the social norm quite yet, but that doesn't mean it's strange -- and maybe it's time for the dining hall tables to acknowledge it.
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