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?
(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!)