Quiet Voices, Powerful Minds
It’s not something we tend to usually think about: Introvert or Extrovert? You say tomayto, I say tomahto… Who cares?
However, Susan Cain — lecturer, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of Quiet Revolution — argues that society neglects introverts, who constitute a third to a half of the population.
Who exactly is an ‘introvert’? Most people equate the term with shyness, although there’s a distinct difference between the two; whilst shyness is fear at the prospect of social judgement, introverts are simply wired to be sensitive to excessive stimulation, particularly in social contexts where extroverts tend to excel. Inversely, introverts thrive in private, muted scenarios.
As an introvert, navigating the world of human interaction has always been a challenge; some of my earliest memories include drawing in the classroom by myself, living in my head. As I grew up, I gained friends and grew in confidence; I doubt you’d notice me, however. In fact, I was so indistinguishable that in the final year of primary school, they put the wrong surname on an art prize I was awarded. The natural conclusion upon noting my quiet demeanour might have been “she’s shy”, “she’s stuck up” or “she’s boring”, even.
The truth? Introverts like to listen and discern.
In her TED Talk, Cain points out that the world in which we live caters primarily for extroverts — this is easily illustrated by governmental institutions (such as schools) which tend to overlook the fact that introverts feel at their most competent in solitary environments. The educational sphere is increasingly devoted to group projects and collaborative effort, where groups have a tendency to follow the lead of the most gregarious and outwardly charismatic team member. Such is an exhausting and nightmarish state of affairs for an introvert, who is perhaps full of great ideas but unable to express them. Introverts thrive in professional environments that involve fewer open-plan offices, selective versus mandatory socialising and fewer or smaller meetings.
In a world that rates and accommodates extroverts, it seems inevitable that that introverts will make self-negating choices out of guilt, from picking an ill-suited career to going on an uncomfortably crowded night out.
Introverts are taught to believe that something is ultimately wrong with them.
It’s inescapable — we’ve all encountered a quiet contemporary, one who is subject to intimidating glares for being a little reserved or “socially awkward”. Or maybe you are that unassuming contemporary? I definitely have been that person.
In Western society, this bias is rooted fundamentally in cultural history, with the 20th Century marking the transition from a ‘culture of character’, where one’s inner self was of paramount importance, to a ‘culture of personality’. This was provoked by the economic migration during the Industrial Revolution, necessitating individuals to work alongside strangers rather than familiar faces; this made social proficiency a crucial survival skill quickly.
The rise of social media has allowed introverts a chance to increase their own social proficiency, to experience interactions less intimidating than those which are face-to-face, to maintain social lives in the comfort of their own homes and to market their image without being typecast. However, social media has further isolated some introverts (and extroverts) due to its pervasiveness and inescapability and its tendency to intensify one’s fear of missing out (such as when you see post after post of an event you chose not to attend because you needed to recharge).
We can forget quickly that introverts make for great leaders and creatives; Cain cites a plethora of famous introverts, from Charles Darwin to Dr. Seuss. A few of my personal favourites include J. K. Rowling, Bill Gates, Meryl Streep, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama. It’s safe to say that you shouldn’t underestimate the potential of an introvert.
The point? There is a need to empower introverts as well as extroverts; whilst teamwork is — of course — vital, allowing introverts the privacy and freedom they require at work and school will enable them to generate a means of solving the issues we now face in our current political and socioeconomic climate.
Next time you notice someone taciturn in your everyday surroundings, respect the conditions in which they flourish. Reach out. And who knows? Undertake your own policy of solitude and see where it takes you.
By Julia Tsavellas