Inspired by Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’
Are you happy in your own company? Do you prefer having a few close friends to spending time in large groups? Are you secretly glad when plans to meet up are cancelled?
If your answer to any of the above questions was yes, the chances are that you, like me, are an introvert. And you’re not alone: a third to a half of the people reading this will have secured the same result (probably more, since introverts usually prefer solitary activities such as reading).
For many people, the label ‘introvert’ is a negative thing. Introverts have a reputation for being shy, socially awkward and pessimistic, even though they are merely people who feel energised by spending time alone (extroverts, by contrast, are refreshed by being with people in large groups).
In today’s outgoing, in-your-face society, people are encouraged to lose their introversion and learn to become sociable, outspoken people, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. It’s an accepted thing. If you don’t like parties, you’re antisocial. If you don’t want to speak out in class, you’re shy and reticent. If your private life isn’t plastered across the internet, you’re not moving with the times.
Yet it has been proven that introversion is hardwired into our DNA. It’s as much a part of anyone as black hair or brown eyes or pale skin. So why should we have to change who we are?
It’s not as if introverts can’t be successful. Lady Gaga, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Christina Aguileira and Angelina Jolie are all examples of introverts who have succeeded in traditionally extroverted fields. By contrast, Barbra Streisand is an example of a shy extrovert; she has a famously bubbly personality but suffers from terrible stagefright. Introversion and shyness are by no means found hand-in-hand. You can be confident without being sociable, commanding without raising your voice. Introverts can enjoy acting and singing and public speaking as much as the next person – it’s just that afterwards they’ll want to spend some time alone or with a few close friends to recuperate.
It has been proven that introverts can have an advantage in business as well as showbusiness. They are self-motivated, think carefully about issues and are good at expressing themselves in writing. They are often more empathetic than extroverts because they spend a lot of time thinking and therefore understand what goes on in people’s minds. They are good decision-makers; where extroverts may jump in straightaway, introverts will be able to think things through clearly and calmly, without losing their temper.
So why do extroverts have the position of dominance in society? There’s no clear-cut answer. Many people believe that the rise of extroversion came with the rise of consumerism; whereas before people had just been required to get the work done, now they had to market the goods. As buying became more important, so did selling. Charismatic, loquacious people were needed to promote the wares of their company and rise to the top. From the 1920s, the consumer industry has grown and grown and now there’s no stopping it. Even in class, a pattern emerges: the loudest people often get the most attention, even if they have nothing particularly intelligent to say.
But what about before that? It seems hard to believe now, but the people who were seen as the greatest in society were the people who were quiet, serious and noble. Loud, gregarious people were often viewed as ‘silly’. A strong character and good virtues were more important than having an exuberant personality. Even today, many Eastern cultures favour calm, reflective types.
As someone who is told in almost every school report and parents’ evening that my work is fine but I need to ‘contribute more in class’, I find a great relief in the sense that I can still be successful without changing my quiet nature. I’m not saying that we don’t have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones at times; no introvert ever got anywhere without a bit of discomfort now and again.
Neither am I saying that there is anything wrong with being an extrovert. On the contrary, I believe that the mix of introverts and extroverts is one of the things which makes our world so rich and diverse. If everyone was quiet and unwilling to work together, the world would be disconnected and hostile. If everyone was loud and spoke over each other, no one would ever come to a solution. It is the equal balance of both that makes many industries, friendships and relationships so successful.
I would have not have reached this conclusion were it not for a book called Quiet by Susan Cain. It is a book that I would urge you to read, even if you only dip into a couple of chapters. It has encouraged me to question some of the things we take for granted in society, and most importantly, to embrace my quiet side.