I have a confession to make. Sometimes when I see someone I know in a public place, usually at the end of a long day, I am often guilty of lowering my head and pretending I don’t notice them, regardless of how good a hair day I’ve been having.
It sounds horrible right? Well actually, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that just can’t stop talking, I am simply exhibiting an aspect of my introverted personality. When I was a child, despite having close friendships and a delightful inner world full of art and imagination, I was labeled as “shy.” I struggled with shyness throughout my adolescence and still struggle with it today. This may come as a surprise to the people who know me, but the reason behind that is simple; like many “social” introverts, I have found a way to fake it.
As a struggling introvert in a world that values gregariousness, being outgoing, vocal and endearing, I learned to smile, make small talk and even push myself into the limelight on the odd occasion (speaking up in class or even public speaking). Although I enjoy being social and I love spending time with people, my idea of an excellent Friday night is curling up with an herbal tea and a good book. Also, I can’t remember the last time I went to a party on New Year’s Eve. All of this may sound fairly pathetic when we compare it to the extroverted ideals of our society but, to an introverted person, a nice quiet evening after a hectic workweek is the equivalent of a raging night out on the town for an extrovert. This doesn’t stop me, however, from glancing at wild party pictures of people on Facebook and contrasting them with the stark difference of my quiet evenings and wondering, “is there something wrong with me?”
An introvert is loosely described as someone who feels energized and refreshed when faced with low levels of stimulation. An introverted individual will seek out their happy place in a library rather than a crowded pub. Spending time with large groups of people or in crowded places may still be enjoyable for them, but for the most part, these activities are energy-draining rather than energy-restorative. Extroverts, on the other hand, draw in energy from outside stimulation. Attending a roaring party at the end of a hectic exam period is exactly what they need to feel refreshed and recharged.
After university I took the Myers-Briggs personality test and found out, unsurprisingly, that I am an INFP (I = introvert). I am a creative individual who has a rich inner world, the description said, and I value interpersonal relationships very highly, but tend to be quiet, sometimes shy and express myself best in written language.
According to Susan Cain, our society started valuing an extroverted personality type when people began to move to the cities and take up jobs in sales and marketing. Salesmen were trained to be friendly, outgoing and talkative in order to draw in clients and sell their products. Also, because of the fact that people were leaving quiet lives in small towns where everyone knew each other, and heading to the anonymity of large cities, it became direly important to make a good first impression. Today we see that higher-level education values group work, “well-roundedness” and presentation skills rather than quiet book smarts. Successful companies feature open-concept office layouts and demand that their employees exhibit the ability to express ideas in a convincing, forceful manner, whether their job requires it or not. As a society, we value socialization, partying, expression and making ourselves heard. We are a celebrity-worshiping culture and not much glitz and glamour is attributed to the bookworm who chooses to spend weekend evenings sitting at home with the cat.
However, Cain urges us to pay attention to people who possess more introverted personality types. Introverts tend to be more cerebral, innovative and creative. They tend to spend more time contemplating, show more attention to detail and often put more of themselves into their work. Most of the important societal advances that we see today are due to the ingenuity of introverted individuals who dedicated their time to sitting at home and going over the same problem in their heads, rather than wearing lampshades on their heads while partying into the early hours of the morning.
Reading books like Susan Cain’s helps to reinforce the assertion that, in a society, all personality types are important. Being quiet and cerebral is just as valuable as being persuasive and gregarious and, in our world, we have a need for both sides of the spectrum. Even though I’ll probably continue to compensate – making small talk when I’d rather read my book or speaking up in front of a large group of people when I’d rather observe from the back of the room – I’ll still make sure I relish my quiet Friday nights with my dog, a book, my painting easel and a notebook.
And I won’t feel bad about it. After all, society needs quiet power too.