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A Metaphor That Matters
Do introverts live in a shell that they’re loath to leave? It’s worth challenging that image.
A while back, a friend forwarded me a note from a reporter looking for expert sources on how introverts can “come out of their shell” to do public speaking. I stared at the wording for quite some time. Over the years, several people had cited that very phrase to me as the most bothersome and offensive misconception directed at them about their introverted personality.
“Some people take it personally when you don’t enjoy having the kind of fun they do,” one person told me. “What they consider ‘coming out of my shell’ would make me play a role that would leave me exhausted for days. Why should I learn to blab about nothing or be really bubbly when I would rather listen and make a quiet comment once in a while?”
“I liken ‘come out of your shell’ to a racial slur,” another told me. “It’s a direct attack on an introvert’s identity, making them an ‘other’ because of who they are.” He added that the head of a school system where he once worked justified docking the grades of quiet students for not participating in class discussions by saying that students who didn’t force themselves to speak up couldn’t go far in life. “I disagreed.” And in 2021, in an online class he took that purported to enlighten people about diversity and tolerance, he pushed back against the instructor’s insistence that personality differences didn’t deserve any special respect. “Being invited to develop skills is fine, but being asked to modify the core of your personality is wrong,” he said.
It’s not that introverts lack the capacity to smile at strangers, make friendly small talk, talk more in class, express enthusiasm or become the center of attention in a large group. In one survey I did of self-identified introverts, more than three-quarters said they could impersonate an extrovert when something important was at stake. But that didn’t change how they preferred to be or the exhaustion they felt after putting on an extroverted performance. According to medical research, so-called "high-effort coping" – striving diligently despite obstacles – makes you more likely to get sick. It seems that your immune system registers harm when life requires you to wage an uphill battle.
And now what about the metaphor in “come out of your shell”? Turtles and snails, among other creatures, have shells that help protect them from predators. When they feel threatened, they retract their head and appendages into the shell. Since humans do not literally have a shell, the expression “come out of your shell” implies that you live in a retracted, withdrawn state most of the time or that you’ve armored yourself as a form of self-protection.
While some introverts may feel they’re constantly having to shield themselves against a world that impinges on them, there are also happy, healthy introverts who feel free and easy spending time on their own and who would rather listen than speak. Saying that quiet, reserved individuals have a shell when they’re simply comfortable being who they are judges them for not behaving in ways extroverts prefer and expect.
When it comes to public speaking, which was the topic of the reporter’s query that sparked this line of thought, a fear of speaking from the front of the room is well-documented to be widespread, shared by almost three-quarters of the population. It affects extroverts as well as introverts. The reporter’s assumption that introverts have greater difficulty with public speaking than extroverts do is misinformed. When we feel that public speaking provides a platform for sharing our convictions, our talents or our knowledge, we can sparkle with eloquence and passion. For more on this, see my article, “How Reserved People Can Shine as Public Speakers.”
Let’s resolve to speak up when thoughtless metaphors needlessly cast scorn at certain human beings.