Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I am trying to work out if my friend is an extrovert or an introvert. According to Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.”

My friend is ticking all the extrovert boxes. Yet, he assures me that he is, in fact, an introvert. He has done the Myers-Briggs personality test twice and on both occasions he was confirmed as an introvert. “It’s not about the outward persona you put on, but where you get your emotional energy from,” he tells me. I’m sceptical. So what is he? An extrovert or an introvert? What, for that matter, am I?

Susan Cain’s thesis is that we are living in an increasingly narcissistic, look-at-me, look-at-what-I- am doing-and-thinking world as exemplified by Facebook (and blogs!). If you hate networking and speaking in public then you are destined to be ignored by an attention deficit world. The introvert is marginalised and regarded as a psychological pariah. Cain maintains that over the past century in the United States there has been a move from the “culture of character” to the “culture of personality”, where people are admired less for the virtues they embody than for the superficial decoration that manages to get them noticed. In such a culture even Jesus is imagined by some evangelical believers to be the model of extroversion. “We’ve turned it (Extroversion) into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform,” she writes.

It is presently the survival of the loudest and the slickest that dominates our attention. The introvert is overlooked and their considerable talents are wasted in the process. Introverts “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 love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy and fear.” Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Wozniak and JK Rowling have all described themselves as introvert, at best when they are solitary.

Cain amasses statistics, research data and neuro-physiological studies to support her thesis. But what becomes clear is that all this information and anecdotal evidence makes the case for there not being any convincing division between extroversion and introversion – in fact, there is no consensus as to what they actually are and if they exist. Cain wants us to believe that extroversion/introversion are binary divisions on a par with male/female, alive/dead. They are not.

Cain stretches her argument so far that it begins to undermine her thesis. It’s hard to believe that every introvert is a would-be Marcel Proust or Albert Einstein or that every extrovert is a loudmouth, chest thumping cretin.

There are important insights in Quiet, but they are devalued by Cain’s dualistic tendency to read everything in terms of the categories of extroversion or introversion. Do attention seekers exist? Yes. Are they boring? Oh, yes. Are there people who are tongue-tied nerds? Yes and yes, they are boring. But, thankfully, most people are more complex, subtle, mutable and interesting than this. Cain ignores this fact because it does not fit her thesis.

So, is my friend an extrovert or an introvert? After reading Quiet, Cain has unwittingly persuaded me that I’m asking the wrong question.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, Viking 2012