June 5, 2013 by Speakers' Spotlight
The Big Noise In The Quiet Revolution: Why Introversion Is In
Susan Cain, the bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was profiled recently by The Daily Mail’s Jane Mulkerrins. “Your tendency to be inward- or outward-directed governs the way you live, work and love,” says Cain in the interview:
Susan Cain never set out to become a spokesperson. ‘Even when the attention focused on me is positive, I am uncomfortable being looked at by a lot of people – it’s just not my natural state of being,’ she explains. A self-described introvert, she’s far happier in a one-on-one situation than in a group, and deeply unsettled by the idea of addressing a room full of strangers. It is something, however, that she’s had to become used to.
A year ago, Susan’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, became an instant sensation, sparking debate among the public and media alike. The title hit number two on The New York Times bestseller list within days and Time magazine featured Susan in a cover story: The Upside of Being an Introvert (And Why Extroverts are Overrated). In the UK, it was similarly well received, reaching number three on the bestseller list.
‘On publication day, I did 21 interviews, for radio, television and press, from 6am until dinner that night,’ Susan recalls, with some wonder.
The following month, she delivered a TED talk – one of the high-profile series of speeches – in California before an audience of 1,500 people.
The challenge was nothing short of terrifying for 44-year-old Susan, a former lawyer turned writer. ‘I felt raw and exposed and naked; it was very, very difficult for me,’ she admits. The online video of her 18-minute talk has had more than four million views to date.
The irony of her clever, counterintuitive book thrusting her inadvertently centre-stage – literally – is not lost on her. ‘Suddenly, I became a public figure – and I have never wanted to be a public figure,’ she admits with a wry smile.
A year on, Susan is busy buzzing to and fro across the US and beyond, giving talks to her ever-growing army of fans. And her book has started nothing short of a Quiet revolution. Leading universities are now examining their admissions policies to better favour introverts, schools are setting up clubs for introverted and quiet children, while businesses and office design firms are rethinking how space is used in workplaces to benefit introverts as well as extroverts.
The paperback edition, which has been labelled ‘the manifesto for introversion’, has recently been published in the UK, and presents the case for a section of the population which Susan believes has been unfairly sidelined for too long. Introversion, she posits, with seven years of detailed intensely researched evidence and anecdotes (thereby displaying an introvert trait: excelling at solitary, highly focused work), is regarded as less successful, less desirable and less worthy a temperament in our society than extroversion.
From schools to workplaces to our personal relationships and the way we raise our children, Susan believes that quietness, shyness and solitude have come to be seen as second-rate, weak and almost shameful, while the projection of confidence and being (or at least pretending to be) outgoing and verbally voluble has come to be seen as the cultural ideal.
This is a thorny problem, she believes, since findings suggest that between a third to half of the US population (where most of her research was conducted and where, it must be said, the volume of your voice can get you a long way) are, by nature, introverts.
Susan even goes so far as to liken the position of introverts in Western society to that of women in the 1950s and 1960s – treated as less equal than their noisier counterparts, while their particular skills and contributions are overlooked and sidelined. ‘And it is as fundamental a part of who we are as our gender is,’ she insists. ‘Your tendency to be inward-directed or outward-directed is huge; it governs every part of the way you live and work and love.’
There are cultural differences, she says – Asian culture tends to favour introversion much more highly than Western culture. The UK, she believes, is a little better disposed towards introversion than America, with a national inclination to value a little reserve. ‘I think of the way our major cities are designed,’ she says. ‘Central London is full of gardens and parks, green spaces and squares, places where you can have a little peace and quiet and time to think. By contrast, in New York, you have Central Park, one huge open space jammed among all the bustle and chaos. It’s not particularly conducive to contemplation.’ But, she says, the response to her book from thousands of British readers, who readily recognise themselves in the pages, has been just as momentous.
I meet Susan in a cosy café in the picturesque town on the banks of the Hudson River, just outside New York City, where she lives with her husband Ken, 47, a former human-rights lawyer, now a journalist and consultant specialising in foreign conflict zones, and their two young sons, aged three and five.
Slender and pretty, Susan is bright, engaging and a great conversationalist – again, perhaps not what many might expect from someone who readily refers to herself as an introvert. But, as her book explains, introverted doesn’t mean antisocial or misanthropic. Introverts may, in fact, have good social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but, after a while, simply wish they were at home in their pyjamas. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions. They listen more than talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.
As a child, Susan says: ‘I always had plenty of friends, but I was definitely a kid who liked to play one-on-one with them, rather than in a big gregarious group. But I come from a family of introverts, so I was very lucky in that way.’
She and her brother and sister would often sit around reading – as would their parents, a doctor and a stay-at-home mother. ‘And if I wanted to spend hours sitting under the table writing stories on my own, it was considered completely natural and normal in my family.’
Since the publication of Quiet, however, Susan has been inundated with thousands of letters and emails from fellow introverts, unburdening themselves about their own, more traumatic experiences of childhood. ‘I know from the letters I get that for people of my temperament who grow up, for example, in families of outgoing sportsmen, that it’s very hard,’ she says. ‘They are continually sent the message that there is something wrong with the way they are and the way that they prefer to spend their time.’
That’s not to say that Susan’s youth was entirely a breeze. ‘As a teenager, the main social currency is being very outgoing, very vivacious, one of a gang,’ she says. ‘And I was never that person. It was never comfortable for me to go around with a big gang.’ She is still not comfortable with large-group socialising, she says. ‘But, happily, once you are a grown-up it doesn’t really matter, because you don’t have to,’ she grins. ‘I always really want to tell teenagers: “It does get better.”’
Today, however, the situation is even more difficult for young people, as not only is there social pressure to be outgoing, but the modern education system is now strongly weighted in favour of extroversion too. ‘Most of our children’s education these days is conducted in groups,’ she shudders. ‘When I was at school, we did our work on our own. We sat together in the classroom learning from a teacher, but we did the actual work by ourselves.’
The fashion for group learning is a problem for all children, she believes. While group learning may help some children stay more engaged, other skills are lost. ‘A lot of deep thought and mastering of a subject is gained from sitting by yourself and working on it, and we are just not teaching children how to do that,’ says Susan.
But introverted children – who are reluctant to push themselves forward, or make contributions without being coaxed – suffer the most from this Lord of the Flies style of arrangement, she says. ‘They learn better working alone – and so they will think they don’t like school, when, really, they are just learning the wrong way for their temperament.’
Susan knows something of trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. She has harboured ambitions to be a writer since the age of four, but after studying at Princeton and Harvard she decided to become a lawyer. ‘I really was the most unlikely lawyer in the world,’ she claims cheerfully, and likens her high-flying job in a Wall Street firm to ‘visiting a foreign country’. However, it was useful for her personal development: she was forced to conquer her fear of public speaking – something which stands her in good stead as an inadvertent cultural commentator now.
Her years as a lawyer also meant that she observed at close range the corporate culture which she believes is largely to blame for the rise of extroversion as the dominant and most desired character trait in current society, including the way in which many offices are designed – open-plan, shared spaces, with no privacy or silence, rendering deep thinking and solo work almost impossible.
On a trip to the UK last year to publicise the book, Susan visited publishing houses and other workplaces and was struck by how entirely open-plan most British offices are, compared to the US, where many workers have some sort of cubicle or divider offering semi-privacy from colleagues. ‘It appeared to be even more extreme,’ she says.
But it’s more than merely a physical issue in the office. The trend for working in ‘teams’, and collaborating on projects – what she calls the rise of the new ‘groupthink’ – has set the tone for a workplace culture which unfairly favours extroversion. Even in the arts, self-presentation has become the key commodity, she says.
‘Before my book was published, I had meetings with prospective publishers, and they brought their marketing and publicity teams to the meetings, partly to assess whether I was somebody who could sell myself well,’ she says. ‘Think of the writers of a hundred years ago – I am sure that many of them would never get published today if they had to be able to do endless television and radio interviews.’
Much to Susan’s delight, the response to her findings has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘I have been amazed by how receptive schools and businesses have been – I expected much more hostility and defensiveness,’ she admits. ‘The book is very critical of educational and business practices.’
But large corporations are listening to Susan’s findings. At Steelcase, the biggest office furniture company in the world, the chief designers are adjusting their plans for office space after reading Quiet, and fellow office furnishing giant Herman Miller has commissioned an art school to create office furniture to favour privacy and comfort rather than teamwork and sharing. The new designs were shown recently at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.
This is not merely about big businesses being magnanimous, or just buying new desks, of course; companies are seeking the best creative ideas, and don’t want to miss out on innovation or performance simply because of how their office furniture is organised or their employees’ teams are structured. With more spaces for quiet contemplation and solo working, introverts can work in peace, which better suits their nature, and extroverts can also get in touch with their more introverted side, hopefully helping with deep thought and creativity.
Scores of teachers and education authorities are contacting Susan to request resources and materials to assist them in better helping introverted children learn. ‘I wish I had concrete resources and tools for teachers all ready to go,’ she says. ‘I don’t have that yet, but that is something I would really like to develop.’
Some schools are developing programmes to allow for students to have one-on-one discussions with teachers; others have ‘quiet clubs’ for introverted children. Harvard is examining its admission policy to see how it can better favour introverts, and at the esteemed Wharton Business School, a Quiet Leaders’ Club has been established.
While Susan does not believe that the trend towards extroversion will ever be reversed entirely, she does believe the societal pendulum is swinging in the direction of some diversity. Barack Obama – bookish, intellectual, cautious – appears to tend towards introverted qualities more than many of his recent presidential predecessors, including George W Bush and, most notably, Bill Clinton. ‘Clinton was very smart, but definitely a showman – a classic extroverted politician personality,’ Susan agrees. ‘He could connect with people incredibly well, but the downside is that extroversion is often associated with impulsiveness and risky behaviour.’
Introverts, like Obama, are less susceptible to the ‘buzz’ from dopamine, the pleasure-giving ‘reward chemical’, meaning they don’t experience quite the same level of euphoria from sex, money and status as extroverts. It is impossible to imagine the kind of scandals that mired Clinton’s presidency becoming an issue for Obama, she believes. ‘He is just far more careful, more reserved.’
Susan does not denounce extroversion – far from it, she is married to one. ‘Introverts and extroverts work well in a pairing – both in work and in love. They are drawn to each other’s company; there’s a sense of each one completing the other, a sense of Yin and Yang,’ she says.
She and her husband Ken met a decade ago, when some mutual friends invited her to his going-away party; he was being dispatched to Iraq for The New York Times. ‘We only spoke to each other for a minute at the party, but that was it,’ she smiles. ‘He emailed me the next day from Kuwait, and when he came home, a few weeks later, we went on our first date.’
Susan believes that dating – at least in the traditional one-on-one sense (speed-dating, she believes, is an ordeal for everyone) – is not a particular problem for introverts. ‘But I do get a lot of letters from introverts asking how they can meet people,’ she says. ‘If the main avenue for meeting people is going to a bar or a party, and trying to make yourself heard in a group, above the din, that’s not going to work very well for introverts.’
Her advice? Take up hobbies, fill your time productively, and let Cupid do the rest. ‘These things most often come about when you are not looking for them, so the key is to make sure that you are out and about, doing things you enjoy – you will meet people that way.’
Social media can also be a blessing. ‘Internet dating can help people to make more gentle approaches, and it opens up so many different ways of connecting and expressing yourself. Suddenly, you have the ability to talk to thousands of people without leaving home.’
The success of Quiet – which is being translated into over 30 languages, and has made the bestseller lists in several more countries including Brazil, Australia and Canada – as well as her plans for a second nonfiction book means less quiet for Susan. In the book she talks about the need for introverts to take respite, to build ‘restorative niches’ into their day. Now she is so in demand, does she still manage to do that? ‘Yes, I always build it in, and I will turn down media opportunities if it means not having to do a back-to-back day,’ she says. Her publishers are wholly supportive of this. ‘They know I am fresher and more energetic when I do it that way.
‘I am pretty sure that is true for 90 per cent of writers when they are out on a book tour, too,’ she continues. ‘It’s just that they are not labelled as introverts, even though they probably are. With me, they think: “Here comes The Introvert, let’s build in some down-time for her.”’
HOW TO BE A HAPPY INTROVERT:
1. At Work: choose your job in accordance with your temperament. Some careers, such as those in technology, art and research science, tend to be introvert-friendly, but it’s more important to pay attention to the culture of a given workplace. Sometimes you have to be prepared to act out of character for the sake of the right work, but it shouldn’t have to be all the time. Many introverts are starting their own small businesses; entrepreneurship affords maximum autonomy and personal freedom.
2. In Love: understand that in relationships with extroverts, you are going to have differences as a result of your different temperaments. If one person wants to stay
at home every Friday night, and the other always wants to go to a dinner party, figure out
a system that works for you both — such as going out once every weekend, or two nights per month. It will save fighting it out every time.
3. Public Speaking: if you are afraid of it, desensitise yourself to the fear by practising in small, supportive spaces. Don’t use work as practice. Join a public speaking group where it doesn’t matter if you mess up.
4. Students: this is the hardest part of life, the time when the only currency around is how gregarious you are. The rest of life is not like that. Your time at college can help to find the thing you are really passionate about, because all kinds of social worlds will open up.