Monthly Archives: August 2012

Introversion – A Game For One (and no conferring)

YOU’RE AT ONE OF THOSE NETWORKING RECEPTIONS, full of interesting people who for the most part you haven’t met before. People are clustering in groups, talking animatedly, sometimes standing for a while before moving on to buttonhole someone new.

When you arrive at such an event do you grab a drink and dive in, inserting yourself into the nearest small group and introducing yourself? Or do you stand by the bar and sneak a look at your watch, wondering how long you have to hang around before you can decently slip away and go home? When I was younger, I was firmly in the slipping home early camp. Now I’m older and more confident, that’s all changed: now I most likely wouldn’t go to such an event at all.

There was a time I thought it was just me. Then I realised other people felt the same, but it still seemed like something faintly shameful that I didn’t like parties. Will there be people I don’t know there? Will I be expected to mingle or can I chat to the one or two old friends I haven’t seen in a while? I would always prefer to spend new year’s eve watching a movie with The Boss, or having dinner with one or two friends.  Other people seemed to get excited about the idea of cramming into someone’s house with fifty or sixty other people, most of whom I’d never met and didn’t really want to. All that swapping of anecdotes, the shouted conversations over loud music, the drunken exhortations to get dancing when you may not feel like it. And the forced joy at midnight, hugging and kissing strangers and singing ’Auld Lang Syne’.

I realised long ago that I didn’t really enjoy parties, and the prospect of networking events was less attractive than going to the dentist (at least there you can listen to music and daydream looking at the ceiling while the dentist works). But, as I say, it felt like a guilty secret, something not to be indulged too openly for fear of being thought ’antisocial’.

But no longer. Now I am free. Thanks to the little flurry caused by Susan Cain, whose book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, was published a few months ago. It turns out that those of us who spend parties fighting the urge to go home are every bit as normal and socially valuable as those who organise the drinking games and lead the conga. We’re not weird, we’re just introverted. Honest.

And being introverted isn’t the same thing as shy or socially inadequate, it just means that we tend to prefer an environment that is less constantly stimulating. Introverts are more likely to prefer concentrating on something in quiet, we may listen more than we talk in social situations and think about things before we speak. On the other hand, if you’re extroverted, you are more likely to be energised by social situations (instead of drained like some of us). Extroverts naturally enough tend to be assertive, to thrive on social stimulation, to think out loud.

None of this need be a problem. It takes all sorts, and so on. Except for the fact that, according to Susan Cain, the modern world has spent the last century building society around the extrovert ideal. In past centuries the ideal was to have ’character’, to operate with integrity and morality. But in an industrialised world of big cities and big business, the ability to stand out in a crowd became more valued. The culture of character became less important than ‘personality’.  Movie stars, bubbly employees and outgoing leadership, instead of solitary contemplation.

As Cain puts it: “A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious. Introversion is viewed somewhere between disappointment and pathology.” Tell me about it. (Or, maybe, don’t.)

So extroverts are more likely to talk their way into the best jobs, to get their books published or their art exhibited. We like extroverts because they’re charismatic, talkative and confident. But can’t they also be narcissistic and unreflective? They have valuable qualities, but maybe we should avoid basing our whole society and economy on their thoughtless banter.

Look at the modern workplace: open-plan offices and  the conviction that ideas from group brainstorming sessions must be better than the product of quiet concentration. Those who speak loudest and most confidently, and think on their feet, have most influence. Those who prefer careful contemplation, and who may be well-informed and quietly insightful can get ignored. Cain says school classrooms are increasingly organised according to this extrovert ideal. She recalls seeing a sign in a New York classroom saying: “You Can’t Ask a Teacher for Help Unless Everyone in Your Group Has the Same Question”.

Why do I find Susan Cain’s Quiet message welcome? You might think it is hardly liberating to be told that the world is remorselessly shaping itself around the personality characteristics that I and people like me find it tiring to emulate. I guess part of the pleasure is being told that many of the things you feared made you weird or a nerd are in fact valuable. We introverts may not make good party organisers, but it appears we may be more prone to empathy, and to develop complex ideas. We prefer to talk about ideas and morality than make small talk. And of course we’re modest. Boy, are we modest. Just as Morrissey in the Smiths stood up for the geeky loner and inspired a generation of specky bookish boys, so Susan Cain is flying the flag for those of us who feel that the world is altogether too noisy and fast-moving.

It’s all right to want to be quiet and still, to turn down the noise. As she says, “It’s a very powerful thing to be quiet and collect your thoughts.”

I wouldn’t push my Introvert Liberation Front manifesto too far though. The key thing is balance. People aren’t all introvert or all extrovert. Introverts (even me, once in a while) can enjoy wild parties, many extroverts can enjoy an hour alone with a good book. As Carl Jung said: “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

So, once in a while, can you just turn it down a bit?

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(There’s an entertaining video of Susan Cain’s TED talk on this theme at this link. Well worth watching, although the irony of an introvert standing up in front of hundreds of people to pitch her book on introverts is kind of obvious!)

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Things we learned on our holidays – Part 1

We have all been thrilled by the London Olympics, of course. (Even those of us who have now decamped 300 miles southwest of London, on the holiday originally planned in order to put many miles between us and our home in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium.)

One of the aims of the London Games has been to inspire a generation. Here on the Cornish beaches we have put that inspiration to the test. The results prove conclusively that not all generations have been equally inspired.

What we have discovered is this.

My son can successfully use his new skimboard.

How hard can that be?

While I can merely provide the raw material for a caption competition.

Oh. That hard.

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St Ives – Even Better Than Broadstairs

A little while ago (see 2 July, I wrote about the English seaside town of Broadstairs. England’s second best seaside resort I said.

Now, at last, I have escaped from the Fiction Factory for a few weeks and I’m 300 miles southwest of London in England’s best seaside town. St Ives, in Cornwall.

St Ives – Like Italy (if you’re squinting)

The wave rolls towards us, pushing up the face of the sea like the surfacing back of a hidden sea monster. It was big enough when it was fifty yards away, gathering itself for the final run into the beach; as it approaches it rears above us. At the last second I notice how small the Nipper looks against this wall of water. I wonder – too late to do anything about it – whether this might be a little too risky. Then what feels like a lorry load of cold Atlantic water slaps down on us like the hand of God. The wave turns me upside down and drives me down deep enough for my shoulder to bump against the sandy sea bottom, before I claw myself upright again and kick upwards.

I surface, spitting salt water from my mouth, and look around. The Nipper emerges spluttering from the foaming water, looking like a blond-haired seal in his black wetsuit. “That was a total crusher,” he says, laughing like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. “I got totally crushed.”

There are many things to love about St Ives in Cornwall. When the sun shines, the view from our apartment could pass for a sumptuous stretch of Mediterranean sand. From the coast path above the town you get a gorgeous view of stone houses tumbling down the slope like children’s toys hastily swept up to clear space for the harbour, and beyond it the deep, impossible blue of the sea stretching away to the far Atlantic horizon.

Admittedly, when the sun doesn’t shine (which, this being England, is often), it can feel more like Iceland. But you don’t go on holiday in England if you want endless sunny days and a sea as warm as your bath.

There is plenty to do and see, reflecting the layering of the town’s long history as a fishing port, and artist colony and now an unashamed holidaymaker’s haven. But for me and my eleven year old son the highlight is always the time we spend at Porthmeor Beach.

If you go to St Ives people will inevitably say: ‘You must go to the Tate gallery, of course.’ Tate St Ives is undoubtedly a popular attraction. It opened on the site of an old gas works in 1993. It always looks appealing; facing the Atlantic with its bold art deco front and white curving roof over the entrance staircase. It’s hard to resist going in.

Some Building Near Porthmeor Beach

Until you turn and look the other way, towards the sea, and – if you’re me and the Nipper – Porthmeor Beach wins every time. There are several great beaches in St Ives, all of them great for families in their different ways. But Porthmeor is where we come for our Dad and Lad fun. The beach is north-facing, so sheltered from the fiercest Atlantic swells. That might mean this isn‘t the place for the hardcore surfers, but the waves are more than adequate for a thrilling session of body boarding, swimming and general water-based roughhousing. This a not a beach for sunbathing or gentle games of Frisbee. It gets too full for that, and in any case the focus is all on the water. People come here to go in the sea, and it rarely disappoints, even when the water is so cold that it makes your wrist-bones ache where it touches the flesh exposed sat the end of your wetsuit sleeves.

The Nipper Catches a (rather small) Wave

So mum can wander the galleries, but for the boys its on with the wetsuits, check the tide tables (the waves are especially frisky at high tide) and down to Porthmeor. If you’re really greedy, the Tate allegedly has a rack for your surfboard, so you can surf in the morning and soak up culture during the afternoon. I confess I’ve never checked this out. Personally, I’m only fit to soak up beer after a few hours in those waves. (And Cornwall has many fine local ales, but that’s another story.)

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August 8, 2012 · 5:57 pm