I AM an introvert: I enjoy my own company, and, after
interacting with a great number of people, I crave time alone, in
quiet. Introversion is often considered a negative trait: it is
lumped in with self-centredness, social ineptitude, and dullness.
Susan Cain begs to differ.
Cain's record-breaking TED (Technology Entertainment Design)
talk - viewed more than five million times to date, and Bill
Gates's favourite - is called "The Power of Introverts". After I
watched it, I wiped my dampened eyes, and then quickly posted it to
Twitter and Facebook. There is nothing more moving than finding out
that you are not only not weird, but that you are not alone. I
discovered that I had fellows that included Sir Isaac Newton, Jane
Austen, J. M. Barrie, Albert Einstein, and Audrey Hepburn, among
There are other people in the world who do not much like going
out in the evening, and who would rather sit for hours with a book
or online. One third to one half of the population would rather
keep their ideas to themselves until they are ready to share; they
work much better alone; and do not like interacting with groups of
people for long.
Megan Walsh, writing in The Times, says of Cain: "Hers
is a still, small voice that punches above its weight. Perhaps,
rather than sitting back and asking people to speak up, managers
and company leaders might lean forward and listen."
Cain gives quiet people permission to be quiet, but she also
urges them to speak out, however softly.
HER first book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world
that can't stop talking (Viking/Penguin, 2012), is dedicated
to her "childhood family", one in which the primary group activity
was reading. It was "the best of both worlds: you had the animal
warmth of your family right next to you, but you also got to roam
around the adventure-land inside your own head".
Cain especially remembers her grandfather, a Brooklyn rabbi and
a "shy person, who had trouble making eye-contact", but who spoke
boldly in the synagogue. He inspired many, as he "spoke so
eloquently the language of quiet".
I was a quietish child who enjoyed making stuff and making stuff
up. I did not like school much, and hated forced group activities.
My siblings and I did not join anything - we were weak at
committing ourselves to Brownies and holiday clubs; we did not like
big Sunday schools; and we hated children's events put on by
churches. Once, the three of us hid under a table until our parents
were called. We were not anti-social - we loved playing together
and with families we knew - but we were quieter.
In both her TED talk and her book, Cain draws attention to our
extrovert-orientated society, in which there is a mania for
group-work and "people skills". "We are told that to be great is to
be bold; to be happy is to be sociable." Therefore, Cain says,
"many people pretend to be extroverts".
IN THE United States, and increasingly in the UK, there is "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 socialises in groups." The extrovert
"puts himself out there".
Introversion, on the other hand, "along with its cousins
sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness - is now a second-class
personality trait. . . Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal
are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that
goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously
appealing personality style, but we've turned it into an oppressive
While emphasising that teams that include both introverts and
extroverts can be vital, especially as catalysts for individual
work, what Cain calls the "New Groupthink" can also be a waste of
time, and even destructive. The New Groupthink "elevates teamwork
above all else, and insists that creativity and intellectual
achievement come from a gregarious place".
British people tend to be more reserved, more introverted than
the American ideal, but even in Britain it is considered less
valuable to stay in than to go to the pub, meet friends, or attend
a meeting. Some people work better speaking at length on the phone;
others, like me, prefer to have information via email or letter.
Some find brainstorming useful; many do not.
Cain covers several environments in her study, from open-plan,
noisy, busy offices, to schoolchildren grouped into extroverted
pods of desks. Children and adults alike thrive in environments
appropriate to their various temperaments.
IN THE 22,000-strong Saddleback Church - led by the Revd Rick
Warren, and one of the most influential Evangelical churches in the
United States - Cain describes meeting the avowed introvert and
Evangelical pastor Adam McHugh (author of Introverts in the
Church IVP, 2009).
His experience of Evangelicalism will be familiar to many
Charismatics (Feature, 17 May):
"The Evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with
"The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more
programmes and events, on meeting more and more people. It's a
constant tension for many introverts that they're not living that
out. And, in a religious world, there's more at stake when you feel
that tension. It doesn't feel like 'I'm not doing as well as I'd
like.' It feels like 'God isn't pleased with me.'"
McHugh's experience does not sound isolated, and it does not
sound much like what happens in the Gospels.
"After all," Cain writes, "hasn't prayer always been about
contemplation as well as community? Religious leaders from Jesus to
Buddha, as well as the lesser-known saints, monks, shamans, and
prophets, have always gone off alone to experience the revelations
they later shared with the rest of us."
INTROVERSION is far from dull; it has little to do with
self-centredness; and it does not mean an aversion to society. I
find small talk exhausting, for example, but will happily speak in
public. If you are quiet, or you know someone who is, Cain offers
some encouragements (I have them pinned next to my desk).
The first is: "Stop the madness for constant group work." The
second is: "Go into the wilderness," like religious leaders,
artists, philosophers, scientists - in other words, do your work in
the way you feel most comfortable and productive.
The third is: "Occasionally open up your suitcase [of treasures]
for other people to see." Inside Cain's suitcase are books and her
enthusiasm for them. Your suitcase might contain your work, your
interests, your passions, your insights into particular situations,
or your story. Fourth, Cain pushes introverts to "have the courage
to speak softly", because the loudest idea is not necessarily the
The most confident person is not always the greatest leader. If
families, corporations, businesses, churches, and schools were to
have more sympathy with introverts, who knows what ideas,
strategies, beauties, artworks, technologies, insights, and stories
might be uncovered, and what jewels might be illuminated? There
might be more understanding, and a more measured approach in
society: risk-takers are highly prized, but we need our
'heed-takers' more than ever.
"Everyone shines, given the right lighting," Cain writes in her
online manifesto; "for some, it's a Broadway spotlight, for others,
a lamp-lit desk." Speak softly, she urges, "because the world needs
you, and it needs the things you carry."
Deborah Fielding is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at
UEA, and writes short fiction. She is a regular speaker at
Greenbelt and other events (www.dfielding.co.uk).
For further information, including an informal
introvert-extrovert quiz, visit www.thepowerofintroverts.com.