At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.
Don't get me wrong, by no means am I putting myself in the aforementioned company, but I do not mind admitting that I am a born and bred introvert -- so is one of my grandsons. Some acorns do not fall far from the tree. Because I have lived introversion, and the awkwardness that often goes along with it, I have worried about the wasted and brilliant potential of a 23-year-old young man in a society today that honours extroversion.
You can imagine then, my delight in being introduced to the refreshing views of another self-admitted introvert, Susan Cain.
In her best-selling book "Quiet", Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts—from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions.
The book was written as a passionate and provocative defense of those who are negatively labeled as "introverts". She begins by reminding her reader that having an extroverted personality is more highly valued by our culture. Little Brennan and Brianna are encouraged to be more outgoing; shyness is seen as a social liability. Most classrooms reflect that goal. Where we once sat in straight rows and spoke only to answer a question, today's children work in groups which are designed not only for learning goals but also to promote social skills.
Corporations increasingly seek out prospective employees who possess the requisite "piece of paper" but also can demonstrate so-called people skills.
Cain writes to reassure the introverts among us (and who comprise at least 35% of our population). She reminds the reader that Carl Jung described how introverts gravitate to the world of thoughts and feelings while extroverts enjoy people and activity. While extroverts recharge their batteries by socializing, introverts renew their energy by spending quiet time alone. She argues that both personality types fulfill useful roles in society.
The recent PBS series on the Roosevelt family highlighted these differences. Franklin was outgoing and thrived on the life of a politician, capturing a crowd by the sheer force of his magnetic personality. Eleanor, his wife, was the polar opposite; a quiet, caring, deeply thoughtful woman who led by utilizing these relational skills and slowly built a consensus to achieve her goals of social change.
The author distinguishes shyness from introversion: the former is a "... fear of social disapproval or humiliation". The latter simply prefers a quiet environment. In fact, the trend toward open office spaces and collaborative problem-solving in the workplace can thwart the creativity impulse in that quieter employee who simply prefers to do his or her thinking alone.
Cain notes a variety of psychological research which determines that introverts are more sensitive, show greater empathy, make better listeners and possess stronger consciences.
“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. 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, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions -- sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments -- both physical and emotional -- unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss -- another person's shift in mood, say, or a light bulb burning a touch too brightly.”
― Susan Cain
Like a respected acquaintance who has also written on this subject, I clearly saw myself in Cain's book at the point where she describes how introverts have an aversion to "small talk", preferring the intimacy of one-to-one conversations. For that reason I don't seem to do well at large social gatherings. We prefer to relate rather than socialize. Ironically, some of us can do well in public speaking, simply because, unlike spontaneous small talk, our role in communicating through a speech (or sermon) is clearly defined. We deliver well-thought-out messages to captive audiences that do not talk back and there is a degree of safety in that knowledge.
Cain adds, however, that introverts can "pretend" to act like extroverts when required. We can manage in large social gatherings or work effectively in committees. The difference is that such activities, while stimulating and energizing the extrovert, will more quickly become exhausting (irritating) for people like my grandson and I. She also reminds us that few personalities are found at either extreme end of the continuum; most people demonstrate some combination of both introversion and extroversion.
Susan Cain is not only helping the rest of the world to better understand that the quiet minority of us are not simply anti-social or lacking in ideas, but she is also reassuring her fellow introverts that we do have a place in the world after all...And we do have a contribution to make when we have the courage of our convictions.
Personally, I am most comfortable when expressing my convictions by means of the written word, in solitude. I am not all that spontaneous and glib when resorting to oral communications in public settings. I hesitate to methodically edit myself when speaking and sense that I frequently lose the attention of my listeners in the process. Suffice to say, introverts are generally self-conscious. Without the ability to write as an outlet for creativity and self-expression, I would be extremely frustrated and depressed...Unfulfilled.
I pray that my grandson appreciates this and understands that there very definitely is a role for him in society, once he finds freedom in the restrictions of his solitude...And learns to pretend a little by selectively stepping outside of his insular comfort zone (a favourite technique of mine) when the occasion calls for it. Sometimes we have to compromise ourselves just to get ahead in the world. The key is to not completely abandon, or lose, our real selves in the process.
"To thine own self be true," I always say; with one very important qualification: "Do not allow your true introverted self to become an excuse for backwardness, or laziness, in personal growth. Nurture that introvert within you...He/she is your best friend!