Writer’s Wednesday: Quiet by Susan Cain
I had been reading about Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain since before it came out. If you haven’t already watched it, I highly recommend her Ted Talk on The Power of Introverts as an introduction to the topic.
I have always known that I am an introvert – even if there have been places and situations where I have not spoken about it. In my opinion there are strengths and weaknesses to both introversion and extroversion – neither is worse nor better than the other. However, we do live in a society that tends to value extroversion, and have left many of us introverts feeling as if there’s something wrong with us. There’s not. I think understanding our introverted or extroverted nature can help us better understand and accept ourselves – as well as those around us.
Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert I highly recommend this thought-provoking and insightful book.
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.
Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.
Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.
Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.
Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friends, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.
Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes. They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.
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, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussion.
A few things introverts are not: The word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope. Introverts can be those things, but most are perfectly friendly…
Nor are introverts necessarily shy. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.
Many introverts are also “highly sensitive,” which sounds poetic, but is actually a technical term in psychology. If you are a sensitive sort, then you’re more apt than the average person to feel pleasantly overwhelmed by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” or a well-turned phrase or an act of extraordinary kindness. You may be quicker than others to feel sickened by violence and ugliness, and you likely have a very strong conscience.
The lesson, says Collins, is clear. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.
But then we took things a step further than the facts called for. We came to value transparency and to knock down walls – not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office. Instead of distinguishing between online and in-person interaction, we used the lessons of one to inform our thinking about the other.
Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distance, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.
The way forward, I’m suggesting, is not to stop collaboration face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it. For one thing, we should actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show, and so are many leadership structures.
And it suggests, says Jadzia Jagiellowicz, the lead scientist at Stony Brook, that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. “If you’re thinking in more complicated ways,” she told me, “then talking about the weather or where you went for holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”
The other thing Aron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they’re highly empathic. It’s as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and TV shows; they’re acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems, which others consider “too heavy.”
“We know this type of person well from literature, probably because so many writers are sensitive introverts themselves. He “had gone through life with one skin fewer than most men,” the novelist Eric Malpass writes of his quiet and cerebral protagonist, also an author, in the novel The Long Long Dances. “The troubles of others moved him more, as did also the teeming beauty of life: moved him, compelled him, to seize a pen and write about them. [He was moved by] walking in the hills, listening to a Schubert impromptu, watching nightly from his armchair the smashing of bone and flesh that made up so much of the nine o’clock news.”
It’s not that there’s no small talk, observes Strickland, the leader of the gathering. It’s that it comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end. In most settings, people use small talk as a way of relaxing into a new relationship, and only once they’re comfortable do they connect more seriously. Sensitive people seem to do the reverse. They “enjoy small talk only after they’ve gone deep,” says Strickland. “When sensitive people are in environments that nurtures their authenticity, they laugh and chitchat just as much as anyone else.”
Probably the most common – and damaging – misunderstanding about personality type is that introverts are antisocial and extroverts are pro-social. But as we’ve seen, neither formulation is correct; introverts and extroverts are differently social. What psychologists call “the need for intimacy” is present in introverts and extroverts alike. In fact, people who value intimacy highly don’t tend to be, as the noted psychologist David Buss puts it, “the loud, outgoing, life-of-the-party extrovert.” They are more likely to be someone with a select group of close friends, who prefers “sincere and meaningful conversations over wild parties.”
It can be hard for extroverts to understand how badly introverts need to recharge at the end of a busy day. We all empathize with a sleep-deprived mate who comes home from work too tired to talk, but it’s harder to grasp that social overstimulation can be just as exhausting.
These findings suggests something very important: introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with.
But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth – a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.
We’re best of when we don’t allow ourselves to go to our angry place. Amazingly, neuroscientists have even found that people who use Botox, which prevents them from making angry faces, seem to be less anger-prone than those who don’t, because the very act of frowning triggers the amygdala to process negative emotions. And anger is not just damaging in the moment; for days afterward, venters have repair work to do with their partners. Despite the popular fantasy of fabulous sex after fighting, many couples say that it takes time to feel loving again.
Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.
– Anaïs Nin
- Posted in: Writer's Wednesday