Telling an introvert to go to a party is like telling a saint to go to hell. —Criss Jami
The world is filled with extroverts, and people and society are held hostage to an “extrovert ideal,” the ubiquitous conviction that the ideal self is sociable and at ease in the limelight. But introverts proliferate, too, and they tend to be solitary, quietly reflective and reserved. Introverts favor environments that are simpler. Extroverts bloom in noisy, deafening, jam-packed and high-octane milieus that drive introverts crazy. Introverts need less outside motivation to function well, be it a lesser number of people or quieter workplaces. Extroverts are people who need people, preferring to be with people as they find them revitalizing.
Introverts require some quiet time to recharge at the end of a busy day meeting people. Extroverts get refreshed meeting people. Introverts feel exhausted if they convene with people they are meeting for the first time and do small talk. Extroverts perform their assignments swiftly and make speedy decisions while they may be multitasking. Introverts are more attentive and work unhurriedly and purposefully. They communicate better by writing than talking. Introverts will engage in small talk after they are done with substantive discussion. Extroverts start with small talk.
Enter Susan Cain’s Quiet, a long and meticulously intense book that tackles the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. The author takes an even-handed and smart look at the interfaces of introverts and extroverts. She brings together scientific studies, interviews and her own experience to craft a smart book that serves as an excellent resource. It does justice to social intricacies without portraying introverts as martyrs or disgracing extroverts.
One of three people is an introvert, says Cain’s research. Yet we often disregard and fail to leverage the power of the introverts. Quiet makes us understand the hushed modes in which introverts work. “Even in organizations, we idolize people who can speak spontaneously, backslap strangers and who visibly demonstrate action. That really puts the introverts at a disadvantage. Introverts are uncomfortable in offices without walls, in unabashedly self-promoting behavior and visibly appearing confident by monopolizing the conversation,” Cain reveals.
Cain’s definition of introversion widens continually and by the end of the book, it has expanded to include all who are “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, and thin-skinned.”
Cain insists that without introverts, the world would be devoid of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, William Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Frederic Chopin’s nocturnes, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown, Steven Spielberg and his Schindler’s List, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Google and Harry Potter, among many others. She likewise shares the case of Gandhi, who was an introvert and yet led such a large movement. After a day of meeting people and addressing crowds, he regained his energy by reflecting and meditating — all telltale behaviors of an introvert. He believed, “In a gentle way we can shake the world.”
Cain posits that unrestricted extroversion — a personality trait usually tied to cheerfulness, excitability, supremacy, adventurism, thick skin, audacity and an inclination toward quick thinking and unmindful action — has actually come to pose a real menace of late. “The enormous reward-seeking leanings of the hopelessly outer-directed helped bring to the world the bank meltdown of 2008 as well as business disasters like Enron. With what has happened to the world economy, the need to establish ‘a greater balance of power’ between the extroverts, those who rush to speak and do and the introverts, or those who sit back and think. Introverts can count among their many virtues the fact that “they’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame. Extroverts must learn to embrace the power of quiet, and learn to sit down and shut up,” Cain states.
Here are some major points that deserve to be highlighted:
Introversion is a second-class personality trait. Along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness, it is somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the extrovert ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
Homebound. Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while, wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, and think before they speak. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of idle conversations, but enjoy deep discussions.
Philosophical orientation. The highly sensitive introverts are not materialistic or hedonistic. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, and physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions — sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear.
Deep psychic pain. That’s what bias against quiet can cause. As kids we might have overheard our parents apologize for our shyness. Or at school we might have been prodded to come “out of our shell” — that noxious expression, which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and some humans are just the same.
Small talk. It comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end. Sensitive people enjoy small talk only after they’ve gone deep. When sensitive people are in environments that nurture their authenticity, they laugh and chitchat just as much as anyone else.
Substance over form. There are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.
Thoughtful words. We don’t ask why God chose Moses, a prophet who stuttered and had a public-speaking phobia. But we should. The book of Exodus is short on explication, but its stories suggest that introversion plays yin to the yang of extroversion; that the medium is not always the message; and that people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well.
Power put to good use. We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of power in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted. Introverts are offered keys to private gardens full of riches. To possess such a key is to tumble like Alice down her rabbit hole. She didn’t choose to go to Wonderland, but she made of it an adventure that was fresh and fantastic and very much her own.
Focus. Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you’re focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless.
Honoring one’s own style. Introverts need to trust their gut and share their ideas as powerfully as they can. This does not mean aping extroverts; ideas can be shared quietly, communicated in writing, packaged into highly produced lectures, and advanced by allies. The trick for introverts is to honor their own way of doing things instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.
Appearance is not reality. Whoever you are, bear that in mind. Some people act like extroverts but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.
Restorative niche. This term coined by psychologist Brian Little means the place you go when you want to return to your true self. It can be a physical place, like the path beside the Richelieu River, or a temporal one, like the quiet breaks you plan between sales calls.
Interrupted. Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors found that the simple act of being cut short is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth.
The author argues that we noticeably undervalue introverts and shows us how much we lose by doing so. They are some of us. They don’t have thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. Cain likewise warns that introversion is not a disease. We should not think of it as something that needs to be cured. The natural habitat of introverts is perhaps their own windowless rooms by themselves, conjuring up ideas. A growing body of research shows introverts often make better leaders largely because they actually listen to what other people say. We need more of them. Let them take charge, and we might all be better off.
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