I recently read Susan Cain’s bestseller ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. While I was reading it I had an experience I don’t think I’ve ever had before while reading a book. I felt like it was written for me.
Objectively speaking, this is complete nonsense. But the fact that there millions of people out there who have probably felt the same thing as I did will give you an idea of how resonant and, I believe, just how necessary Susan Cain’s message is. It’s been out for 4 years now, and I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading it. I tend to avoid making hyperbolical claims, preferring a more tentative and qualified mode of communication, but this time around I’m resisting that urge by saying that everybody should read it–whether you identify as an introvert, and extrovert, or somewhere in between.
The funny thing is that Quiet hasn’t really told me anything I didn’t already know. I knew I was an introvert long before I ever heard the term, and I knew the term long before Cain showed up on the scene. So what’s the big deal? I don’t know exactly, but maybe there’s something about reading about this topic in a book that’s made things click for me. I certainly feel more justified in some of my behaviour, and the kind of life I want to lead.
A Complex Issue
One aspect I appreciate most about Cain’s treatment of her subject is that it doesn’t oversimplify the introversion/extroversion dichotomy, which you see so often in the memes, infographics, articles, listicles, Buzzfeed videos, and blog posts (this one included) that have popped up on the internet in the wake of this book’s release and the “quiet revolution” it’s inspired. Sure, those things are probably good in some ways for tossing a decades-old term into the pop culture whirligig. But they’re just primers, no more. They are often too simplistic, reductive, and sometimes even patronizing, to really get to the heart of the matter. Nevertheless, Cain’s book manages to avoid those pitfalls, which I find refreshing.
It’s also a good reminder that there really is no substitute for a thoroughly researched and well-written book to do the job of penetrating and permeating the reader’s consciousness (hopefully for the better), and allowing for a more nuanced discussion of a subject. As a result, reading Quiet has had a far greater impact on me than all of the former bite-sized morsels of information on introversion I’ve seen floating around on the interwebs combined.
Still Waters Don’t Always Run Deep
I detest the implication that introverts are always deep thinkers, more sensitive, more bookish, more intellectual, etc. etc. than their extroverted counterparts, and that the latter are as a group more shallow, insensitive, impulsive, anti-intellectual, and straight up stupid. An incredibly offensive oversimplification if there ever was one (i.e. bullshit), and thankfully Cain doesn’t commit this fallacy. She pays due respect to the sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent, and caring extroverts among us that have and continue to make this world a far better place than it would be without them. But she understands that we have placed too much weight on the extrovert as a cultural ideal, to our own detriment. Introverts are not better, but if what Cain is writing about is true, they are not heard nearly as much as they should be because of this cultural bias.
Introversion has influenced literally every aspect of my life. The most obvious one is my social life. Throughout my 20s, I’ve often felt embarrassed, even ashamed that I have nothing to tell people I haven’t seen in a while when they ask “What have you been up to?” All I can say is “oh you know, just working, being with family, friends.” Which is true, but doesn’t cover the half of what I’ve really been up to.
I spend a lot of time reading, for example. A LOT of time. It’s not the only thing I do, but it is a major activity in my day-to-day. It’s something that’s easier to justify when you’re in school and therefore expected to be reading; when you’re out of school you’re expected to be Doing Things! So when somebody I haven’t seen in a while asks me what I’ve been up to and I say “oh I’ve been reading”…it doesn’t sound very interesting, even though to me it’s one of my favourite things to do. So I don’t say that. I say other things that might sound more impressive, or at least “useful”, but which I care less about. (Unless you don’t feel like talking at all, another perfectly legitimate introvert-ism.)
Which is absurd, because I know many people who are like me, and yet if I ran into one of them I STILL would keep up this pretense of being busier than I actually am, which in turn might prompt them to keep up the same ridiculous pretense for their own lives, and so you have a whole exchange between two genuine and thoughtful people who are just “faking it”, and nothing of substance actually gets said! What fools! How unsatisfactory!
How About That Local Sports Team?
The problem is that the questions I really like, most people never bring up in small talk. And that’s the part of conversation introverts typically have no stomach for. So already it’s difficult to put your best foot forward and make a good impression at the beginning of a conversation when the social etiquette is not designed with your personality in mind. So you just have to suffer through it as best as you can and hope they don’t lose interest and walk away before the really interesting stuff comes up.
Imagine if people opened with “What are you reading?” “What are you thinking about these days?” “What’s inspiring you?” Ok, even if you did ask me the above questions I might still stutter and stammer and mutter something only half-audible and half-intelligible, but I’d still appreciate the effort you’d be making. I think I’ll be awkward no matter what the initial chit-chat is about. So be it. But if you stick around long enough, or ask me the right questions, I probably won’t be so quiet anymore.
Making Work Work for Introverts
Ah yes. Work. How to navigate the choppy waters of the work world as an introvert? The biggest hurdle for me has been that there really aren’t a lot of entry-level jobs that are good for introverts (that I know of, anyway.) So it can be a major struggle. It can take a long time for me to feel at ease in a new job. I’ve often chalked this up to some lack of moral fibre on my part; I’ve wondered why I was so unambitious, why I tend to hold back in group discussions, why I dislike being in charge and am ok with following the lead of others, why I had little desire to ascend any sort of hierarchical ladder and lead a team of
minions peers, even if it meant a better standard of living (like, if it’s not captain of the USS Enterprise, I’m not interested, ok?).
Why did I not want what others around me want? What was wrong with me? You can see why potential employers might see these qualities as a lack of initiative. Honestly I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long in the workforce. I thought it was because I was lazy and irresponsible. I’d even wondered if I was clinically depressed.
The truth is, when I’m on my own, I feel significantly happier. I can work through problems with more ease. Only when I’m alone is my sense of self not being filtered through the expectations of other people. I feel more free. I even like myself more. I’d nearly forgotten how much of that has to do simply with my natural predisposition, rather than some flaw in my design. Nothing is wrong with me for having those preferences, simply because society around me wants me to have different ones.
My main criticism of Cain’s book is that it focuses disproportionately on the world of business and politics, arguably the most extroverted fields of all, and there’s less in it for introverts for who have no interest in entering either of those fields. But whether we like it or not those fields influence virtually every other livelihood in one way or another, so I can see why she paid so much attention to it. Also, because those are difficult fields for introverts, their success stories seems to stand out that much more. Regardless, her insights apply everywhere, to all walks of life.The more we can organize our workplaces to accommodate introverts, who make up roughly one half of the population, the better. And that goes for entry-level “joe” jobs too.
There is a chapter of Quiet where Cain focuses on the neurophysiological factors in introversion. Now I want to be careful here. Science has often been invoked to justify current human behaviour as “the natural order” of things (see: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homo- and trans-phobia), and any time I see that argument I get suspicious. We must always scrutinize our reasons.
However, I think we’d also be foolish to deny that biology does play a part in personality psychology. There is a lot of science to support the claim that introverts (broadly speaking) are wired differently than extroverts: they are less motivated by extrinsic rewards like money and status and prefer work that is more intrinsically satisfying. They have a higher sensitivity to novel stimuli than extroverts. This is why extroverts need more stimulation to feel alive, and introverts need less. This is why introverts get exhausted more easily by social interaction than their extroverted peers. This is one reason why they are more cautious, and yes, more shy.
It’s not all nature, of course. There are cultural and social conditions that factor into it as well. A painful experience can make anybody just as if not more risk-averse than someone who was predisposed to being that way. But that’s the key: introverts are people who are predisposed to it from the beginning.
It’s made me consider my own reaction to the world around me. I’m typically a cautious person. I can be spontaneous, but my default is to be more tentative. Take an extreme but nonetheless true example: it can take weeks, some times months between the moment I see a book I might want to buy, and actually deciding to buy it. I’m slow to act. I’d make a great Ent.
However, while it may be harder for me to adjust to novelty than it is for others, it does make me able to go more in depth into the things I am already interested in. There are upsides to being this way, something our culture that worships innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t always see.
Quizás, Quizás, Quizás
Anyway, this can be a huge obstacle to living a full and rich life, which I fully acknowledge. But too often we cast these traits in a negative light. Reading Quiet has shown me that there are still virtues in in the word “perhaps”.
“Perhaps” can be infuriatingly non-commital when misused. But with it I’m able to see ambiguities and complexities in life that others might miss. It makes me more able to agree with seemingly contradictory opinions without losing my mind. It even makes me more understanding of people with different points of view from my own. Too tolerant, sometimes, to the point that I can seem to lack conviction. In other words, I might come off as cowardly. But I think it can make me more considerate of other peoples’ feelings, which may look like a weakness to some people. In interpersonal conflicts, I tend to play the diplomat.
And the key piece of information in all of this is that if, as contemporary personality psychology claims, our temperament is more or less fixed, then we should learn to work with it, not against it. We all may have “free traits” as psychologist and acclaimed professor Brian Little claims, so people like me can pretend to be extroverts for a time (and I do, lots, having been an actor for some 13 years), but we eventually need to go back to our “default setting”. It’s frustrating to recognize the limitations to your personality, but it can also be a huge relief. It’s no excuse to stop challenging yourself and growing, but this must be done in a way that plays to your strengths.
Here Come Some Contradictions
Ok, so let’s be honest. The whole introvert/extrovert thing is silly, if you really think about it. There are a lot of reasons why a person is who they is. How I was raised, who I associate with, what ideas I’ve come into contact with and at which times in my life, what I had for breakfast three days ago, what time of day it is. I am conflating introversion with other traits (shyness, cautiousness, introspection) that are not introversion itself, and effectively making the very mistake that Susan Cain manages to avoid. I’m aware that throughout this blog post I am oversimplifying.
Labels Are Constructs
I reject the idea of basing my entire personality on a single label. In fact, whenever I’m labelled anything, it can feel like a straitjacket being put on me and the first thing I want to do is wriggle out of it, set fire to it and bury it in the cold, cold ground. Also, I get a lot of enjoyment out of subverting peoples’ expectations. Human beings are far too gobsmackingly complex; the heart of our mystery cannot be so easily plucked out as that. Anybody who’s gotten to know me knows I can be outgoing, direct, bold, even zany.
I’m wary of labels, because holding on too tightly to them is what causes suffering, and it all quickly devolves into the worst kind of identity politics. But when you come across such a label, which contains within its borders a constellation of traits that overlaps with your own with a high degree of accuracy–even if at the end of the day it’s just a construct–it can be extremely useful. Even liberating.
I don’t believe temperament is destiny. I believe it’s more like character, as old man Aristotle once said. It’s what we do with the raw material we’ve inherited in life that really defines us. But whatever we do, we can do it in a way that honours ourselves.
I highly recommend this book, wherever you may fall on the vast and marvelously varied spectrum of personalities. It has helped me to accept myself a little more, and I hope you’ll get as much out of it as I did.