by M.C. Parker
Our culture made a virtue 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
(epigraph from the concluding chapter of Quiet)
Growing up, were you ever told you were “too sensitive” or “too quiet”? Do you enjoy solitude, prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities, and would rather have an in-depth conversation than make small talk? If you answered yes to these questions, chances are you’re most likely an introvert, according to the introduction of New York Times bestseller Quiet by Susan Cain.
Subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Cain’s book seeks to redress the power imbalance between introverts and extroverts, and is a thoughtful treatise on the respect deserved of the quiet, introverted souls who make up as much as half the population.
Perhaps you had extroverted parents who tried to get you to “socialize” more, or the other way around: told to be “seen and not heard.” Either way, respecting the differences between introverts and extroverts instead of trying to make one more like the other, is the only logical way to proceed, notes Cain. In her quiet, methodical way, through diligent research of voluminous studies, she documents the characteristics and contributions of introverts in society.
Defined as a ‘person of contemplation,’ introverts are described as sensitive, reflective, serious, and shy. An extrovert, on the other hand, is defined as a ‘person of action’ and can be described as sociable, active, and dominant. Most of us fall on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, and Cain makes the sensible argument that the two types complement each other.
The problem is that the extrovert personality has been labeled as the “cultural ideal” in North American society, particularly due to the heavyweight influence of the world of business, where assertiveness, sociability and outgoingness are seen as the norm, and the value of the reflective introvert largely ignored or discounted. Self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins and institutions like Harvard School of Business have all helped to promote this ideal. Cain counterbalances with many anecdotes, studies and examples that show introverts are just as good, if not better, at sales, leadership, and collaboration.
Exploring the science behind temperament, introverted children are found to be highly sensitive and reactive to their environment – experiencing sensory overload – hence the need for quiet and solitude. However, the extrovert is actually under-stimulated, hence the need for action, activity and excitement. There are also interesting cultural differences with the more introverted “soft power” personality favored in Asian culture.
Not to be confused with meekness, introverts can step into the spotlight when the cause is right, and examples are given of Rosa Parks, as well as artists, musicians, educators, etc. Working and living happily as an introvert in today’s society means understanding specific needs for downtime while respecting loved ones’ need to socialize and interact; Cain provides good advice for introverts on how to best function at work and at home.
Parents should note that introverts respond better to a gentle, soothing manner (“Very nice, keep up the good work”), while extroverts prefer assertive language (“You can do better!”). Teachers need to respect introverted children and not try to “cure” them of shyness; and praise their intense interests and passions as “they are the artists, engineers and thinkers of tomorrow,” says Cain. Some final words of advice: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”
© M.C. Parker, 2013. Former member, Professional Writers Association of Canada. For more information about this writer, please visit www.parker-press.com.