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Speak out, but in your quiet, introvert way

by
12 July 2013

Society desperately needs the power of introverts; support for them has become a phenomenon, says Deborah Fielding

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 many others.

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 standard."

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 extroversion.

"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 best.

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.

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