I’ve just finished reading Quiet by Susan Cain, a passionate paean to all the introverts of our world, who, says Cain, number anywhere between a third and half of the human population. Not knowing much about the genetic basis of introversion (there is one) and only ever having considered it from the ‘outside’, if at all, (I self-identify as an extrovert on every personality test I’ve ever taken) I was hooked. The book’s subtitle is ‘the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ and I believe, having finished reading it, that this is exactly what I have learned from it, and what I’d be comfortable telling someone else about.
The first very valuable assumption Cain lays out is that in our world today we worship extroversion. You’ve got to remember she’s writing primarily about and for an American audience, but in this, I believe she has a point that does resonate globally, not least because of the spread of the ‘extrovert ideal’ by American media and popular culture all over the world. Cain skilfully outlines this ideal as being “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decision making, even at the risk of being wrong. He works well in teams and excels in groups… Sure, we allow technically gifted loners who launch companies in their garages to have any personality they please. But they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”
Introverts, by contrast, have been relegated to the ‘second class’ of desirable personality types in modern society, ‘somewhere between disappointment and a pathology’, writes Cain. The main problem being, that apart from half the world potentially being maligned and misunderstood, the significant, specific talents of the introvert population of the world are also going unnoticed and grotesquely under-utilised. Extroversion may be an enormously appealing personality style, writes Cain, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform. And that’s not good news for us. Hurtling, as we all are, towards the glimmering prize of a socially able, gregarious, extroverted ideal in the ‘people searches’ we undertake daily – from finding the perfect partner to hiring the right employee - might actually be leading us down the wrong path completely, a path of disappointment, and, if the numbers are to believed, an endlessly frustrating lifetime of fitting square pegs into round holes, or what Cain calls the self-imposed life of the ‘pseudo-extrovert’.
There are a number of different things that this book got me thinking about. The first was the cult of ‘personality’ that we see everywhere around us today. Cain quotes the famous American cultural historian Walter Susman’s assessment when she says that around the turn of the twentieth century, America shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. “In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in in public as how one behaved in private. The word ‘personality’ didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of having a good personality was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. ‘The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer’ Susman famously wrote. Every American was to become a performing self.”
I find this fascinating on a number of levels. First, it explains to me the roots of the particularly American predilection with the self as an individual entity to always be showcased, celebrated and flaunted. This is, after all, the only culture from which Facebook, which is really just one ginormous celebration of The Performing Self, could have emerged so naturally. But all this celebration of the performative self is surely as far as it’s possible to get from the (East but also pan) Asian ideal of the subjugation/erasure of the self in the quest to maintain social harmony. Think about countries like Japan, where famously ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ – surely these are cultures in which the introvert, not the extrovert ideal is prized most highly? (Hector Garcia writes well about Japanese introversion in his award-winning blog). So of course this led me to wonder what happens when one ideal takes over in mainstream and popular culture at least, as being the superior one. How do naturally more introverted cultures, like most if not all of Asia, square their traditional ideals/preferences with that of ‘global culture’, if there is such a thing?
Cain touches on this a tiny bit, though to be fair, not very exhaustively, and only within the context of the ethnic sub-groups within America. A fuller study on the topic would be fascinating (actually it probably exists, just not yet popularised into airport-book format, maybe I should go and do that). Apparently, according to some psychologists, extroversion is literally in our DNA, and Asians have less of it. “The trait has been found to be less prevalent in Asia and Africa than in Europe and America, whose populations depend largely from the migrants of the world. It makes sense, say these researchers, that world travelers were more extroverted than those who stayed at home – and that they passed on these traits to their children and their children’s children.’ As personality traits are genetically transmitted’, writes the psychologist Kenneth Olson, ‘each succeeding wave of emigrants to a new continent would give rise over time to a population of more engaged individuals than reside in the emigrants’ continent of origin’. ”
Hmm. That immigrants are the greater risk-takers and extroverts, the doers and the go-getters, is of course one of the founding myths of America. I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to call those who stayed behind ‘less engaged’ but this goes back to the nub of Cain’s argument – that engagement in the world can happen in many different ways, and we have predisposed ourselves to only valuing one.
So back to the Cult of Personality in different parts of the world. I was recently in Asia researching a paper on Social Beauty, i.e., the role that beauty plays in the lives of young women who spend as much of their time online as offline, and to whom online personas are as, if not more, important, as offline ones. The word that cropped up time and time again, as a ‘new’ thing to think about in digital Asia, was ‘personality’. Especially in India, where I had people telling me how ‘in the past, it was fine for a girl to be just all the usually things like fair, thin, college-educated but nowadays she also has to have a really good personality, you know?’ And that’s this whole idea that you are more than the sum of your constituent marriage-CV parts, and that extra bit, that ‘X’ factor, is your personality, your charm, your ability to engage, socialise and be interesting, through your own quirky and individual set of interests. This is all really a new consideration, and one I now believe spurred to a great extent by a global obsession with extroversion. In my mothers’ day, it wasn’t uncommon for sisters of the same family to be seen as interchangeable in marriage match-making conversations (personality? I can just see the look on my grandmother’s face now) – but things are changing as every little girl tries to emulate the cult of the performing, charming externally-oriented self from the moment they set up their first social networking account.
Much is made of how America is loud and Asia is quiet – this is simplistic and reductionist of course, but in this context of extroversion/introversion, it’s exactly what I’m talking about. If the loud people set the rules, Cain argues, the quiet people are on an unfair footing from day one. Surely that means the global stage isn’t fairly taking into account, or utilising, the resources of the quiet half of the world? That only the outliers from the quiet cultures, who are willing to sing and dance and self-parade, are the ones who make it on a global stage? I shudder to think that that’s the case – but fear it’s exactly so. Everyone else is just playing along – we all know the ‘pseudo-extroverts’ who have Facebook accounts but hate using them, or who tweet reluctantly when pressed to.
There are other things this book made me think about. One is the whole introversion/extroversion dialectic in relation to creativity (are the ideas that are most engagingly presented really the best ones?) and another is the whole topic in relation to how we work (is all this constant social collaboration really that good an idea?). But those are two separate musings for another day.
A good book, worth reading.