In praise of introverts

I’ve never been a fan of “self-help” and “how-to-be-happy” books. It’s not just that when I’ve looked at them they’ve struck me as glib and overly “feel-good.” It’s also that I’ve never really wanted perfect health, or believed it attainable, or the perfect body or mental bliss. The happy mean sufficed: moderate self-indulgence, moderate exercise, a reasonable amount of happiness.

Even “how to get rich and enjoy your wealth” books offered no temptation. Either they proved beyond my comprehension, as things economic often do. Or they struck me as ways to divest me of what money I already had (not much), and then where would I be.

But late this winter I came across Susan Cain’s just-published “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” from Crown Publishers, and I’ve changed my attitude toward books that promise to help you understand yourself better and (almost) guarantee improvement. Cain’s provocative and (mostly) well-written book, spoke directly to me, and loudly. And it will speak so to many others.

Cain’s subject is the introvert, the taciturn, quiet, soft-spoken, and often very shy individual who is sometimes taken as having nothing to say and is far more comfortable alone with a book or a small number of friends, rather than in a crowd or speaking in front of an audience.

Cain, a Princeton grad and Harvard Law School alumna, pictured above,  admits to being one. And I am too. What she knows about introverts is what I’ve always known as well: Our quietness doesn’t come from not liking people; we do. It most certainly doesn’t come from feeling superior; we don’t. Among the world’s introverts have been the likes of Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, and millions of John and Jane Does.

Our opposites are the out-going, talkative, naturally friendly, and at-ease in a crowd people known as extroverts. They include Franklin Roosevelt, Tim Tebow, and very likely the late American Bandstand host Dick Clark.

How do we introverts become what we are? One of the most interesting theories Cain discusses comes from Harvard where scientists followed a study group from the time they were infants through maturity. Those who became introverts had been babies who reacted strongly to their environment. Loud noises and the like would cause extreme irritation and unhappiness.

Those who became extroverts largely ignored the very things that would send the future introverts into tantrums. The implications were that introverts learn to keep a disturbing environment at arm’s length to avoid overstimulation, while extroverts, for whom their environment has been no problem, enter into life’s fray without hesitation.

That’s one theory among many Cain brings up. But whatever the origins of being an introvert might be, she believes the distinction between introvert and extrovert is an important one when it comes to who we are.

Where we fall on the introvert/extrovert scale, she writes, “influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make a conversation, resolve differences, and show love.”  But that’s not all, not by a long shot. Whether we’re introverts or extroverts “affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them” and determines “how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader” and much else.

This is right on the money, I think, and so is Cain’s lament that we introverts in America are regarded as second-class citizens, compared to the far more admirable and socially acceptable extrovert, who has long exalted the ideal American personality type. Fully one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts, she writes, though many learn to disguise that fact in order to appear as extroverts.

Cain argues that the introvert’s shyness and reticence are traits that have unfairly and wrongly come to be looked upon as a “problems” to be “solved,” uprooted, and replaced with the extrovert’s qualities – assertiveness, the ability to be always on the move, seemingly on top of every situation, and garrulousness.

A personal aside: I encountered this anti-introvert attitude first hand in the 1950s when my well-meaning mother, saddled with a decidedly introvert son, decided to deal with the “problem” by insisting in enroll in every possible organization our small West Virginia town provided.

4-H, scouting, church groups – I joined all of them, and liked most of it, balking only once when she insisted I take a ballet class at the local YMCA. I found I was the only six-year-old boy in a group of what seemed to me 500 girls. I said no, firmly. We compromised, and I took tumbling, which I learned to love.

Did I benefit from this enforced activity? Yes, it did improve my social skills. Yet to this day I remain the introvert, preferring from time to time to retreat from the world, read a book, take a hike with a friend, or take on a project alone.

The demand that introverts be changed is wrong, Cain asserts, because introverts are as valuable to society as extroverts, and the qualities that introverts possess – the ability to work on their own, alone, to day-dream and come up with new ideas – should be fostered, not devalued and undermined.

In one of her book’s most interesting sections Cain describes how Asian families living in America foster the interiority and self-reliance they learned back home in China, Japan, or Korea. Her contention is that by valuing their introverts, Asian Americans produce highly skilled students and professionals in highly competitive fields.

She cites a revealing – and not unusual – case that underlines the difference between Asians and Americans when it comes to introverts, quoting an Asian student who was educated in her native country and then came to the United States to study at a major university.

The young Asian was shocked at the classroom behavior she encountered where professors encouraged students to talk in class, even when they said nothing but what the Asian student called “nonsense.” She was even more deeply shocked to learn that silence in class wasn’t valued at all, nor were listening and absorbing what the professor had to say, nor was mastering the material in order to have something worthwhile to say.

Cain offers many suggestions on how the lot of introverts can be improved in our extrovert society.  She’s very much against the common practice employers have of grouping employees together and urging them to brainstorm and come up with new and useful ideas. The best way to get new ideas from introverts, she points out, is to allow them to work alone or at the most in very small groups.

Similarly, she urges grade-school teachers to recognize their introvert students and not force them into situations where they have to compete against extroverts in class. In small groups or alone, introvert students will thrive, in larger groups they’ll clam up.

The stakes are high, Cain insists. She brings up the example of the financial meltdown of 2008. Often, she notes, critics have said that less testosterone on Wall Street and more women would have helped cool things down and restore order.

But she wonders if another explanation – and solution – wouldn’t be more effective. Big banks and financial houses, she points out, have long valued extroverts, out-going, optimistic, and aggressively risk-taking employees, over the more cautious introvert who is inclined to wait, think things out, and hesitate before taking big and uncertain risks.  More employees who are introverts, she concludes, might have averted, or at least tone down, the financial collapse.

What did I learn from Cain’s book? One, that many, many people are introverts, and not just me and a few others. Two, that it’s harmful to society to downplay the virtues that introverts offer society and to place too high a value on the role of extroverts.

Both of these things I knew, of course. They’re common sense. But often learning to come to grips with a problem is coming to see things clearly. Sometimes it is common sense that’s lost in the scuffle and fray of life and has to be rediscovered.

It’s doubtful that Americans will soon abandon their extrovert ideal: it’s too deeply engrained in all of us to change quickly, and it does have some merit – the world does need dynamic leaders. Yet Ms. Cain offers a valuable and welcome salvo, in what might be a future balance between the roles of extroverts and introverts in American life.

Famous Introverts — Actresses

  • Candice Bergen, actress, writer, photographer
  • Ingrid Bergman, actress
  • Ellen Burstyn, actress
  • Glenn Close, actress
  • Audrey Hepburn, actress
  • Helen Hunt, actress
  • Diane Keaton, actress
  • Grace Kelly, actress
  • Jessica Lange, actress
  • Laura Linney, actress
  • Gwyneth Paltrow, actress
  • Michelle Pfeiffer, actress
  • Julia Roberts, actress
  • Meg Ryan, actress
  • Meryl Streep, actress

Famous Introverts — Actors

  • Clint Eastwood, actor/director
  • Harrison Ford, actor
  • Tom Hanks, actor
  • Sir Alfred Hitchcock, film director
  • Jack Lemmon, late actor
  • Bill Macy, actor
  • Steve Martin, all around talented guy
  • Noah Wiley, actor

Other Famous Introverts

  • Johnny Carson, former Tonight Show host
  • Jane Clayson, host of CBS Morning Show
  • Matt Lauer, co-host on the Today Show
  • David Letterman, host of the David Letterman Show
  • Diane Sawyer, co-host of ABC’s Good Morning America
  • Barbara Walters, host of 20/20

Take the  Test for Introverted Personality Traits.

Source of the “famous introverts” information: The Introvert Advantage.

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