Rosa Parks was one, so were Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, George Orwell and Chopin. Eleanor Roosevelt was one, but her husband, US President FD Roosevelt, wasn’t. Former US vice-president Al Gore says he’s one too but the good money says Donald Trump certainly isn’t.
Introverts like those above have been making their mark – quietly but no less emphatically than their extroverted peers – for centuries and across all aspects of human endeavour.
And they succeeded not despite their introversion, but because of it.
Author Susan Cain, herself an introvert, makes it clear that it is not her intention to malign extroverts; she is in fact married to one and would be lost without him.
However, whereas introversion used to be just another character trait, no better or worse than extroversion, it has over the last hundred years or so become more of a character flaw.
Cain traces how the world – or the US in particular – changed from a Cult of Character in the 19th Century, when the emphasis was more on traits such as likeability and agreeableness, to a Cult of Personality at the beginning of the 20th Century, which saw the birth of the Extrovert Ideal.
“At the onset of the Culture of Personality, we were urged to develop an extroverted personality for frankly selfish reasons – as a way to outshine the crowd in a newly anonymous and competitive society. But nowadays we tend to think that becoming more extroverted not only makes us more successful, but also makes us better people.”
And introverts have, ever since, been struggling to emerge from the not insignificant shadow cast by the Extrovert Ideal.
Introverts reading this will know who they are. Yup, we’re the ones in the kitchen at parties. And we shouldn’t make apologies for that; after all, that’s often where the best conversation is.
And if you’re not sure if you are an introvert, Cain has collated a rough-and ready true and false questionnaire: ranging from “I prefer one-one-one conversations to group activities” (True) to “I don’t enjoy multi-tasking” (True again).
She’s at pains to point out that introversion and extroversion are the two extreme poles of a continuum, so none of us fits wholly into one camp.
The problem introverts have with living in the world today is that it is set up to meet mainly the requirements of extroverts: from our open-plan offices to the practice of brainstorming, which, according to Cain, rarely produces the sort of wonderful results we expect.
As to the question of whether introversion is genetic, Cain presents some evidence that children who are “high reactive” (eg more reactive to sudden loud sounds) at birth will turn out to be more introverted than “low reactive” kids. But, as with most things, it appears it’s a combination of nature and nurture.
Cain does stress that introverts can learn a lot from extroverts, and vice versa. Introverts can, to a degree, adopt extroverted traits, to make ourselves appear more extroverted, becoming what Cain calls “pseudo-extroverts” but this raises an interesting ethical dilemma
“We know there are physiological limits on who we are and how we act. But should we attempt to manipulate our behaviour within the range available to us (try to be more extroverted) or should we simply be true to ourselves?”
Harvard psychology professor Brian Little has a theory: the Free Trait Theory.
“Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”
The downside is that introverts cannot “act” extroverted indefinitely, they need a lot of downtime.
That probably explains why after a week with my family, I have to shut myself away for a few days. It also probably explains why I’m more than happy to live alone since I work in a very loud, open-plan office for most of the week.
Cain has a very easy, accessible style of writing, sharing a number of personal anecdotes that make this book refreshing in its honesty and humility.
The only problem is that she’s preaching to the converted – I doubt most extroverts would give Quiet a second glance on a bookshelf. Nevertheless I’d recommend this life-changing book to extroverted parents who are worried about their introverted children, or husband and wives who are trying to understand their spouses.
Maybe extroverts would sit up and take notice if the title was Quiet!, but the exclamation point is not Cain’s style.
Now it’s up to us introverts to spread the message of our power, quietly.
Written by Robyn Leary. Robyn is newspaper copy editor, member of the Cape Town Book Club and an introvert.