“…we think we value individuality, but all too often we value one kind of individual…” – Susan Cane in Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
The ‘extroverted ideal’, defined by Susan Cane in her novel, Quiet, as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”, is a paradigm we are taught to strive towards in all spheres of life. Cane references a study investigating group dynamics, revealing Western society’s cultural preference for the ‘man of action’. Expressive personalities instilled greater confidence in the group and were seen as more intelligent and capable than their more reticent counterparts. The studies even found a correlation between variations in speech, such as velocity and volume, and the way one is perceived; the ideas of faster and louder talkers were regarded as more effective, even though this was not necessarily the case in practice. Our cultural bias against introversion, defined as a preference for a “quiet, more minimally stimulating environment”, and the tendency to “listen more than talk, and think before speaking”, suggests that the extrovert ideal has become an “oppressive standard”. This is damaging as it leads to ‘pseudo-extroversion’, introverts going against their nature to fit the extroverted mould, perceiving their introversion as a pathology and an ‘obstacle’ to be overcome.
This is exacerbated by the fact that institutions such as schools and workplaces are designed for the more gregarious, who thrive off of highly stimulating environments. For example, whilst the creation of ‘open planned’ offices promotes idea sharing, collaboration and teamwork, Cane believes this should be accompanied by an understanding that introverts need a greater balance between independence and teamwork to perform at their optimum. To further this argument, she analyses the link between solitude and creativity. New and fashionable ‘groupthink’ problem-solving models suggest complex problems can be more effectively solved through group work. Whilst Cane acknowledges the power of groupthink, she cites examples from history in which solitude gave rise to epiphanies in science, philosophy, and politics. She draws on evidence demonstrating that group dynamics, the tendency to ‘mirror’ and affirm the ideas of the most charismatic, and the fear of social disapproval can often stifle creativity and original thought. She argues that institutions can run more efficiently by integrating more ‘introverted’ working styles into their approach; time for independent thinking should be carved into the working day for ‘groupthink’ to work more effectively.
This example feeds into her overarching argument that introverted skillsets, styles, and personalities are extremely valuable to the world. To further dismantle the extrovert ideal, Cane analyses physiological differences between extroverts and introverts, discovering that where one lies on the extroversion-introversion spectrum can be predicted from infancy. She references a study undertaken by Jerome Kagan, in which infants were exposed to unfamiliar and highly stimulating environments. Kagan predicted that the infants who reacted more vigorously would grow up to become quieter teens more averse to risk-taking, whilst suggesting the opposite of those who were undisturbed by the stimuli. He based his predictions on his knowledge of the amygdala, the part of the brain sensitive to environmental change. When Kagan’s predictions came to fruition, he found that introverts have a highly reactive amygdala, explaining that heightened sensitivity to stimulation is why more introverted people tend to prefer small group activities and feel the need to ‘recharge’ alone at the end of a long day. This suggests that one’s temperament is determined by biology – while introverts can often believe there is something ‘wrong’ with them, this cannot be further from the truth; the way they engage with the world is merely an outcome of biology and the way their brain is wired.
Cane also traces the history of the extrovert-introvert spectrum, seeking to understand the Western preference for extroversion. She attributes the growth of the extrovert ideal to the rise of industrial society; urbanisation and migration from agricultural areas into cities gave rise to the ‘culture of personality’. People were rooted out of their tribes and communities, relying on traits such as gregariousness to assert themselves in unfamiliar environments, forge new links and become better salesmen. She then refers to examples of influential people in history, whose introverted styles aided rather than impeded their cause. For example, though one might imagine Rosa Parks as a larger-than-life figure, biographies describe her as “soft-spoken”, drawing attention to her “radical humility”. Parks’ contribution to the world did not involve flamboyant speech making but a “quiet fortitude”; the single word she uttered, “no”, and her refusal to give up her seat in the bus was a watershed event sparking the civil rights movement, thus challenging the assumption that the introverted style is ‘lesser’.
Cane’s novel casts refreshing light on what it means to be an introvert. Whereas shyness involves fear of social judgement, introversion is the way in which people react to stimulation and prefer to channel their energy. She also clarifies that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ introvert or extrovert, ridding the extrovert ideal of its power as the personality indicator is not a binary but a spectrum and highlighting that word ‘introvert’ has accrued unnecessary baggage. Cane’s novel enabled me to realise and unlearn the biases I held towards my own introversion; she presents it as something to be celebrated and not stigmatised, promoting understanding and self-acceptance. Quiet is a must-read for both introverts and extroverts alike!