by Susan Cain
Brit expression : a person who has interesting qualities or abilities that most people do not know about; a previously unknown and unexpected winner in horse racing; a quiet and unassuming person who exhibits true grit unexpectedly.
I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament, someone who could easily stand up to a busload of glowering passengers. But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. They said she was “timid and shy” but had “the courage of a lion.” They were full of phrases like “radical humility” and “quiet fortitude.” What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? These descriptions asked implicitly. How could you be shy and courageous?
Parks herself seemed aware of this paradox, calling her autobiography Quiet Strength – a title that challenges us to question our assumptions. Why shouldn’t quiet be strong? And what else can quiet do that we don’t give it credit for?
Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the singly most important aspect of personality – the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed in them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.” It’s reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous systems. Today, introversion and extroversion are two of the most exhaustively researched subjects in personality psychology, arousing the curiosity of hundreds of scientists.
These researchers have made exciting discoveries aided by the latest technology, but they’re part of a long and storied tradition. Poets and philosophers have been thinking about introverts and extroverts since the dawn of recored time. Both personalities appear in the Bible and in the writings of Greek and Roman physicians, and some evolutionary psychologists say that the history of these types reaches back even farther than that: the animal kingdom also boasts “introverts” and “extroverts,” as we’ll see, from fruit flies to pumpkinseed fish to rhesus monkeys. As with other complementary pairings – masculinity and femininity, East and West, liberal and conservative – humanity would be unrecognizable, and vastly diminished, without both personality styles.
Take the partnership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. A formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn’t have had the same effect as a modest woman who’d clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation. And Parks didn’t have the stuff to thrill a crowd if she’d tried to stand up and announce that she had a dream. But with King’s help she didn’t have to.
Yet today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold; to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts – which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts – in other words, one out of every two or three people you know. (Given that the United States is among the most extroverted of nations, the number must be at least as high in other parts of the world.) If you’re not an introvert yourself, you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.
If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event – a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like – jolts them into taking stock of their true natures. You have only to raise the subject of this book with your friends and acquaintances to find that the most unlikely people consider themselves introverts.
It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – 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 favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in 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.
Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second – class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
The Extrovert Ideal has been documented in many studies, though this research has never been grouped under a single name. Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent – even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas. Even the word introvert is stigmatized – one informal study, by psychologist Laurie Helgoe, found that introverts described their own physical appearance in vivid language ( “green-blue eyes,” “exotic,” “high cheekbones”), but when asked to describe generic introverts they drew a bland and distasteful picture (“ungainly,” “neutral colors,” “skin problems”).
But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions – from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer – came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there. Without introverts, the world would be devoid of: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming, Chopin’s nocturnes, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Schindler’s List, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Google, Harry Potter.
As the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither e=mc^2 or Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.” Even in less obviously introverted occupations, like finance, politics, and activism, some of the greatest leaps forward were made by introverts; figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi – and Rosa Parks – achieved what they did, not in spite of, but because of their introversion.