I’ve just read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I had never really thought much about where I was on the introvert/extrovert scale, but I think that like many of us I had a rather stereotypical view of each: introverts as silent, pale creatures who never speak to anybody, and extroverts as boisterous, confident, overwhelming characters. I didn’t feel like I really fit into either, although I was clearly closer to the former than the latter.
I won’t paraphrase the whole of the book, although it was so fascinating it is very tempting to go through all her points. The main eye-opener for me was Cain’s explanation of the difference between introverts and extroverts as requiring different levels of stimulation. We are all comfortable with different levels of interaction with others, but also with the busyness of our environment, and such basic things as levels of sound. For people to be at their most comfortable, they need to be neither anxious nor bored, but at a level state in between. Introverts can deal with less stimulation than extroverts before they start to feel uncomfortable. For example, a team meeting at work might be over-stimulating for an introvert, while an extrovert may be in their element. This doesn’t mean that introverts can’t cope with these kinds of meetings, but that they may need quiet time to recover afterwards. Other differences were more basic but were remarkable to me: introverts are comfortable with lower sound levels than extroverts. In an experiment where introverts had to listen to music set at a louder volume, comfortable for extroverts, they were less productive. Similarly, when extroverts listened to music at a lower volume, comfortable for introverts, they were under-stimulated and also less productive. This explained to me an age-old problem I had with an old flatmate: he was always turning the music up, which made me constantly distracted; as though I had an itch under the skin. I would turn it down and he would get very irritated. We needed different levels of stimulation.
Unfortunately for introverts, the world today is in many ways an extrovert’s world. From a young age we are encouraged to be forthcoming with opinions, good team players if not team leaders, to volunteer contributions in class, push our thoughts forward at work. This is all thanks to the idea that people are more productive in groups, and that louder, more outwardly confident people make the best bosses and get farther in life. However, Cain argues that many of these ideas are misconceptions. The famed face-to-face team brainstorm, pushed particularly after the growth of the internet and the good results of people working together online, actually produces less good ideas than people working alone. Open plan offices are a product of this culture, and they make work that much more tiring for introverts who crave time alone now and then to recharge.
This tendency to deeply enjoy time alone is a trademark of introversion. I know people who only need one evening to themselves in a month or two, and others who need at least one a week. The conversations between my flatmate and me would be incomprehensible to some extroverts. They often go something like this: ‘What are you up to this week?’ ‘Ugh- I’m busy EVERY evening. What about you?’ ‘I’m doing absolutely nothing- no plans whatsoever!’ ‘Oh my God, I’m so jealous!!’ Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t both also enjoy going out. A popular misunderstanding is that introverts don’t like being around people at all, and are totally anti-social. This isn’t true. We just need less time around others than extroverts might, and if we have a very busy week, we’ll need a few days to recharge alone or with very little company. At the beginning of the summer I started working almost full-time for the first time in a while, and was also very busy in the evenings. In the first month or so of working, I caught the bus straight home from work only three or four times. I wasn’t getting enough time alone and I burned out: became tired, overemotional, and depressed. After reading this book, I no longer feel remotely bad about booking in time to spend by myself. If I know I have a very busy weekend coming up when I’ll be around people a lot, I make sure the weekday evenings either side are mostly clear, and vice versa.
Quiet also has encouraging news for introverts: that we make good team leaders and bosses without needing to take on extroverted qualities. We are good listeners, delegators, and are more likely to be able to take the good advice of colleagues without worrying about loss of face. Unfortunately, many introverts grow up with self-esteem issues related to being constantly told to change as children, at school and sometimes at home. Almost all my reports from high school say the same thing: that I should speak up more. Part of the reason I didn’t wasn’t introversion, but fear of getting it wrong, but still: introverts are more likely to listen and absorb, rather than talk when they have nothing to say. Cain has good advice for teachers and parents who are taking care of more introverted children. We are not wrong, just different, and pushing us to be forever talking when we are uncomfortable is not going to help.
Introverts will be more confident and more willing to take on extroverted qualities when they are doing something they are passionate about, but many of us will take longer to get to what we really want to do in life, and make false starts going down paths we feel we should go down, rather than doing what suits our personalities. There was a very odd moment in the book which felt eerily accurate to me: that introverts who find themselves unsure of what they want to do, and what is right for them as a career, should remember what they told people when they were younger. I told careers counsellors I wanted to be a journalist. This wouldn’t be good for me at all, but Cain’s point is that introverts will often be near the mark with the career they thought of when they were young, even if it wasn’t exactly right. So, not a journalist, for me, but a writer. I encourage everyone to read Quiet, even if you feel you are more extroverted than introverted. There is so much information in there on how to understand different people, wherever they are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and not undervalue those with quieter qualities.