Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The Mormon Introvert

The 2013 book "Quiet," by Susan Cain.
The 2013 book "Quiet," by Susan Cain.

The 2013 book “Quiet,” by Susan Cain.

I’m (finally) reading a marvelous book on introversion called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

And in typically extroverted fashion, I’m going to tell you some of what’s in the book before I’ve even finished reading it, because blurting out first impressions as if we are already experts is precisely what extroverts do. You’re welcome.

The book is full of fascinating neurological and social scientific research about the different ways that introverts think, express themselves, and take on leadership roles. Reading it has been very eye-opening, particularly as it has made me think about how introverts might feel in the LDS Church.

Nutshell version? I don’t know that it’s a very hospitable culture for them.

In fact, Mormonism is a thoroughly extroverted faith. “Every member a missionary,” right? We expect children to start bearing their testimony in sacrament meeting at an early age. We send our recent high school grads out into the world talk about their faith with total strangers. In fact, the entire missionary experience could be a living hell for an introvert, because there is never any sanctioned time in which a missionary can be alone except when going to the bathroom!

Being introverted is not the same as being shy; plenty of introverts exercise leadership at work, school, and—if their unique skill set is valued—at church. The difference between introverts and extroverts has to do with where they draw energy. As an extrovert, I draw my energy primarily from being with other people, which makes it a challenge to work from home. When I tell introverts about my job as an editor and writer, and the fact that I “get to” spend most of the day alone, their eyes light up as if I have achieved nirvana.

As an extroverted Mormon, I have done some things that I now realize are exactly the things that introverts hate. I used to sometimes pop by to see the women I visit teach without calling first, just because “I was in the neighborhood” and felt like being social. This was more about my needs than theirs, I now realize. (Sorry . . . .) And as a gospel doctrine teacher, I sometimes called on people who had not raised their hands, just because they had made the cardinal mistake of looking interested in the conversation.

IntrovertMormons express our cultural extroversion in many ways. We encourage people to say yes immediately to callings or service opportunities. Making decisions right away is something that extroverts are prone to do (sometimes to our later regret). Introverts, on the other hand, are more likely to feel comfortable if given time to ponder a decision.

One thing the church could learn from introverts is the value of simply listening without making a judgment, executing a decision, etc. One of the best bishops I ever had is someone who may well have been an introvert; I’m pretty sure that in the long line of bishops I’ve had, there have only been a couple of introverts. What I liked most about him was that he was an excellent listener who did not feel the need to jump in and “solve” everybody’s problems. But “merely” listening this is not really what the bishop’s manual encourages. (Yeah, I read it. Extroverts are snoopy.) The manual’s full of great ideas for getting people help, pointing them toward resources . . . all of which are important, but little of which teaches bishops how to simply listen.

And then there’s our “hive mind” mentality. On Sundays, most Mormons see it as a virtue that every single ward on the planet is studying from the same correlated lesson plan, and that we are discouraged from bringing in outside sources to enhance our teaching. There is little room for creativity when what we care about most is doctrinal conformity. Reading Cain’s discomfiting chapter on Groupthink, I was struck by how our entire program of Correlation is an essentially extroverted enterprise.

But then, the whole notion of people being saved in families is an extrovert’s dream, isn’t it? To never be alone, for all of eternity. When Mormons imagine our eternal rest, it’s always in the company of others. What if your idea of deep rest is having at least some time away from the company of others?

So, fellow Mormons, there’s a lot the Church could do to make fellow introverts feel more welcome.

Have you hugged an introvert today? No, wait, don’t do that. First ask them if they want to be hugged.


RECOMMENDED READING:

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Introverts in the Church, by Adam McHugh (not LDS-specific, as McHugh is a Protestant minister, but very relevant questions and issues)


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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