I am not a shy person. I love my friends and family, and enjoy spending time with them. But extended time with people can leave me depleted. Extended time making small talk with strangers is completely exhausting. I can happily spend hours, days even, puttering around my house, working quietly, thinking a great deal, and writing and reading. A happy night for me is a cup of tea and a good book. I am an introvert.
It is estimated that in America, one third to one half of the population is introverted. If you are not introverted, chances are you are married to one or are raising one or are a friend to one. And yet, extroversion is seen as the ideal temperament in our society.
"Yet today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We're told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable." (p. 3)
Team work and cooperation, being talkative and taking charge, having a strong personality -- these are all highly valued, and individuals with these traits are often viewed as smarter and more successful than quieter, more thoughtful personalities.
So what happens to the rest of us? According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Crown Publishers 2012), we often pretend to be extroverts. We push our children to be extroverts. We feel ashamed that we would rather stay home with a good book than go to a big party. We feel that maybe we think too much. We feel a little guilty that we let the phone go to voice mail. So we push ourselves, often to our detriment, to be more outgoing, more gregarious, than we really are.
Susan Cain has good news for us. The world needs us. Without introverts, we never would have had the theory of gravity (Newton), the theory of relativity (Einstein), Chopin's nocturnes, Peter Pan, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Rosa Parks, or Google, to name just a few.
She punctures the myth that group projects, team work, and collaboration, increasingly popular in schools and in the corporate world, are always the best way to work. Working alone often produces the best inventions and discoveries, the best art and literature.
I thought her explanation of the rise of extroversion as a cultural ideal was fascinating. She speaks of the "Culture of Character" slowly changing into the "Culture of Personality" in the 20s and 30s, fueled by advertisers and self-help gurus such as Dale Carnegie, and later, by exuberant sales personalities like Tony Robbins. Whereas hard work, reputation, manners, and integrity were highly valued in the nineteenth century (and could be cultivated by anyone), characteristics such as personal magnetism and being attractive, dominant, forceful, and energetic were now being pushed as the way to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. Just as left-handed children were trained to use their right hands, "parents and teachers conspired to overhaul the personalities of quiet children" (p. 27) so that they wouldn't be "social misfits."
Today, "The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never to be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up." (p. 31) Look no further than Facebook and Twitter and the rise of "selfies." There is an extreme bias toward being extroverted in the U.S.
Of course, we need extroverts. They're the ones we love to invite to dinner parties, and who make us laugh and can take great ideas and put them into action. They're fun to be around, and can energize us to action.
But Susan Cain's book reminds us that introverts are just as valuable to our world. Introverts are the thinkers, the scholars, the writers. They are the listeners, the people who enjoy deep discussions. Introverts can lead and direct people, as well, when they need to. In fact, their style may even be more helpful in sensitive negotiations, and as leaders as they tend to listen more, ask questions, and think before they speak. Their calm demeanor can often diffuse heated situations.
I, for one, love being an introvert. It's sometimes a little hard "in a world that can't stop talking," though. TVs are everywhere, even blaring at the corner gas station. Smart phones sounding alerts, 24/7 news coverage (remember the days of just one hour of news?), and FOMO (fear of missing out) can overwhelm those of us who prefer quiet. The world is really noisy. I would say even the most extroverted needs to cultivate a little quiet in this world just to stay sane and keep perspective.
This is a well-researched book (with 46 pages of notes at the end), but very readable and interesting. She explains when it is good to be a "pseudo-extrovert" (for example, when you have to present ideas to a group), how to honor and value introverted children, and how to get along with an extroverted spouse, as well as what it means to be "sensitive" and "highly reactive." Have you ever been told that, as an introvert, you need to develop a thicker skin? Well, it turns out that highly sensitive people (who are mostly introverts) are physiologically "thinner skinned;" they actually do feel hot and cold, light and noise, emotions, and others' feelings more than other people because of their physical makeup. And she explains why that can be beneficial and not a handicap.
I highly recommend this book to introverts and introvert-lovers alike. It will give you new appreciation for the contributions introverts make to our world.
Now I'm off to quietly putter around the house by myself.