“So what are we reading today?” asks the waitress with a bright smile and a loud, clear voice.
I’m aware that other people in the café have turned their heads. I blush and stammer, giving a deliberately vague answer. “A book about personality.” The extroverted waitress continues to smile, but I can sense that she’s disappointed by my failure to mirror her chirpy confidence. She doesn’t understand that the unexpected, unwanted attention has caused my heart rate to soar and that a wave of nausea has just ruined my appetite.
Years of experience have taught me that I should not tell the waitress that I’m reading a book about introversion. Although my actions have already given me away—sitting alone with a book, being startled and hesitant about social interaction—I know better than to out myself completely by dropping the ‘i’ word in a public place. It’s a taboo word with negative connotations.
I’ve learnt that introversion is something that many Westerners regard with distaste, contempt, fear, or pity. People have let me know that they consider it to be either a disability I should hide, or an unhealthy ‘choice’ I have made and should give up. Worse, some people project dark motivations onto my quietness and need for frequent solitude. (I know because some have even confessed this after getting to know me. It doesn’t help that films portray psychopaths as quiet loners. I don’t want to chop you up, guys; I want to read in peace.)
My experiences remind me of those of a relative. She was born left-handed but punished for using her left hand for tasks such as writing. Her parents and teachers insisted that she use her right hand. Being left-handed was treated as a defect or even a sign of evil (the negative English word ‘sinister’ comes from the Latin word for ‘left’). Today, treating left-handed people in this way seems superstitious and draconian, and I hope one day that telling introverts to become something they’re not will be viewed in the same manner. People don’t choose their ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences or position on the introverted/extroverted scale and they shouldn’t have to apologise for being themselves, or hide who they are.
In the workplace, at job interviews, in social situations, in transactions with service providers and authorities, I am constantly aware that the world rewards extraversion. My essential nature is a ‘handicap’ others exploit, deride or pity. Conversely, many employers don’t seem to realise that the qualities that make my best work possible (an ability to concentrate for long periods, to notice details, to anticipate problems and plan ahead, to persist with tasks, to work methodically and precisely, etc.) are aspects of my introversion. They pat me on the back for sticking with a task and eliminating errors, but also ask me to be more outgoing, without seeing the inherent contradiction in their request.
I can fake being louder, more gregarious, more energetic for short bursts, but the performance isn’t convincing and I can’t keep up the act.
I hope that Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking will become a common reference book amongst parents, educators, employers, recruiters and social workers. Spreading the word could allow introverts to share their gifts with the world and help them withstand the challenges of living in societies that favour the extroverted. I think it could change people’s lives in the way that books such as The Female Eunuch did.
Susan Cain will probably be preaching to the converted, as extroverts are less likely to find the book’s blurb enticing. Well intentioned parents will probably continue to send their introverted kids to drama classes, sports clubs and other group activities to shake them “out of their shells” and make them be “like everyone else”.
In Quiet, Susan Cain summarises scientific findings, interviews introverts and extroverts, and describes environments and institutions which favour one or the other. She considers the workplace, schools and universities, religious organisations, social movements, financial markets, marriages, parenting and sibling relationships.
It was uplifting to be reminded of my strengths and to know that up to half the population is on the introverted end of the scale. It was simultaneously reassuring and disheartening to learn that introversion may have a strong biological basis: it’s not your fault if you’re an introvert but you may not be able to do a great deal about it, either.
What I got from Quiet was that startling and heartening thrill of recognition, of hearing your own experiences validated and articulated. My experiences were mirrored in those of the people Susan Cain interviewed. Suddenly, aspects of my behaviour and preferences that I thought were strange personal quirks have been revealed as ordinary, everyday aspects of the introverted temperament.
Being an introvert, rather than pump my fists in the air and yell “Yes!”, I wrote this post and will recommend the book to others—quietly. You can find out more about the power of introverts on Susan Cain’s site.