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Should we “label” people as introvert (or whatever)?

In a recent INSET session for school teachers I was talking about the experience of introverted people in a school setting. As always happens, this was the section that raised the most feedback and interest afterwards, with teachers really keen to find ways to make sure that they are teaching their introverted students with as much attention, understanding and opportunities as their more extroverted ones. Some of what I have to say on this can be challenging to hear, both for those teachers who are themselves more extroverted and those who aren’t but who realise they have not fully played to the strengths and learning needs of everyone in the classroom. I was a teacher myself long ago and I feel very bad that I did not know about introversion and extroversion differences. I dread to think which needs I did not appreciate – and I’m a definite introvert myself, for goodness’ sake!

Anyway, a teacher asked a question in the Q&A. As always, especially online, it’s hard to answer all questions fully at the time and I thought I’d add something here. The question went along these lines:

“Is it right to label students as introvert or extrovert?”

The implication was that it might not be, that it might be problematic. Let’s think what the concerns might be:

  1. People are usually/often not extrovert OR introvert but a mixture of the two, depending on the situation, mood, who they’re with etc. And people can change somewhat over time. (Absolutely and I’m very clear about that – I can do a whole session on introversion and then this would be explored.)
  2. We might not know whether a person is more I or E, as it is very often hidden. Introverted people very often hide their emotions well and display closed expressions. (Absolutely, and again I’m very clear about that. Introversion is not shyness but something more biological, more complex, more rich. You might think you know who is introvert but you might be wrong. Most people don’t guess that I am, for example.)
  3. A label is restrictive, like a pigeon-hole, and precludes flying free out of the pigeon-hole to change, to adapt, to grow. (Ah, this is what I want to address.)

The problem is not with labels but with the word “label”. It’s pejorative and the question “Should we label people as…?” expects a certain answer. (No.) I never suggest the word “label”. I talk only about recognising that:

a) there are people in your school and classroom who are experiencing being introverted in a world geared up to value extroversion and

b) there are things about introversion to understand, value and incorporate into teaching if you want everyone to benefit and thrive equally.

If instead of the word “label” we talk about allowing people to identify as introvert or to value and respect their introversion as an important part of them, with benefits, then “labelling” ceases to be a problem and becomes a tool for empowerment. It’s rather the same when we talk about “labelling” someone as dyslexic or neurodivergent in some way: there are only risks if you use that label as a pigeonhole to stare out of at the world or to shut someone in, but not if you take the trouble to understand what dyslexia (or whatever) means for you so you can fly with it.

Understanding that a person who tends towards introverted thought, emotion and behaviour patterns does not label or pigeon-hole them but gives them a firm scaffold from which to learn to fly. It allows them to climb onto the rooftops and see the possibilities in all directions. Then, good teaching enables them to spread their wings. They can learn the tricks that will mean they not only to survive and thrive in a largely extrovert world but allow their more extroverted peers to see their value and even to learn the painstaking skills and useful behaviours of the deep-thinker, the sensitive empath, the analytic dreamer, the supportive friend. All those are common virtues of people who tend to introversion. Not labels but possibilities.

If we did put people into pigeon-holes, telling them “That’s who you are – now stay there safely”, then we would be doing them a huge disservice. So I don’t. When I tell teenagers that aspects of their brains help explain some of their experiences I’m not saying: “Here’s your pigeon-hole – ‘teenager’ – now get into it and wait till you’re adult.” What I’m doing is giving them insights into their brains and behaviours, putting them in context, helping them feel supported and understood so they can spend as little time as possible worrying about things they find difficult or different and as much time as possible using their self-awareness to feel good about themselves and to have active agency where possible.

So the only thing wrong with labels is the word “label” and the pejorative connotations.

I hope you find the understanding of introversion and extroversion useful and empowering, wherever on the spectrum you believe you are yourself. For more on this, for young people themselves I recommend The Teenage Guide to Friends and for adults and older teenagers I recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet Power.

Next up: Tip tips for teaching your introverts!

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