by K.M. Zahrt
When I was in college, I discovered that several of my personality traits indicated I was introverted. What this realization about my temperament did for me, immediately, was help me understand why certain situations seemed to drain my energy and how other situations helped me recharge my battery. That awareness alone has been life-changing because I can adjust accordingly, for the most part anyway (my wife can give you plenty of examples in which I did not adjust). So, when I heard about Susan Cain’s 2012 bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I rushed out to buy a copy and read it straight away.
Cain does a nice job of compiling interesting evidence and research that helps define and explain the differences between those who have introverted tendencies and those who have extroverted tendencies. Introversion, as defined by Cain, is a “constellation of attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned” (p. 268). However, Cain’s coining of the label, “Extrovert Ideal,” is perhaps the most useful take-away from the book. Cain states, “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” (p.4). Cain compares being an introvert in the Extrovert Ideal to being a woman in a male-dominated society.
Here’s the situation: During the 20th Century in which the Extrovert Ideal rose to stardom, the idea that individuals possessed a changeable identity also arose. As the former notion conceived of the ideal way to behave as a good American (particularly a good capitalist, and even more specifically, a good salesman), the latter notion put the introvert in an inferior position with a social disorder that was the introvert’s sole responsibility to change.
While most of Cain’s description of an introvert fits me most of the time, it doesn’t always, which is part of the problem with the topic itself. Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf famously noted in regards to her character, Clarissa Dalloway: “She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that. […]she would not say of herself, I am this, I am that” (Mrs. Dalloway, p.8-9). Cain recognizes that introvert-extrovert labels for temperament exist on a spectrum or a continuum, and that an individual is not clearly — as Mrs. Dalloway would say — this or that. For me, for example, a large-group gathering in-and-of itself is not a drain on my battery. A large group of long-time friends would be quite the opposite. However, a large-group gathering of my parent’s long-time friends would be a drain. It’s contextual. Depending on the situation, I could also identify myself consistently as having traits typically attributed to extroverts, such as: “ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, comfortable in the spotlight” (Cain, Quiet, p. 269).
The biggest problem with discussions surrounding introversion-extroversion is what I like to call, “The Underdog Complex.” The language that is used even by introvert advocates, even by Cain, fails to avoid slipping into language that makes introvert versus extrovert a black-and-white dichotomy and puts introverts into a weaker position in that relationship. For example, she uses the phrase “man of contemplations” to define an introvert versus the phrase “man of action” to define an extrovert. Her introduction is even titled “The North and South of Temperament.” Although she didn’t come up with the phrase, she is inadvertently reinforcing the notion that introversion is the southbound, less-desired temperament.
For another example, I recently saw this “Open Letter from Introverts” blog post circulating on social media. The post is apparently intended to be a humorous and helpful “note to everyone to clear the air” on introverts, but it’s a perfect example of the Underdog Complex. Nearly all of the jokes are grounded in stereotypes that introverts are some kind of awkward, weak, lonely, or even downright mean, while elevating the extrovert to hero status.
Unless the language used when talking about introverts changes, the Underdog Complex won’t. As Cain suggests, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself” (Quiet, p. 15). Even though the book waffles between compelling non-fiction supported by research at times and fluffy, inspirational self-help at others, Cain’s message is clear: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting” (p. 264). I would add, fellow introverts, don’t be self-fulfilling reinforcements of the negative stereotypes. Know yourself. Know your limits. But play like champions.
Here’s one thing we could do to help ourselves: We introverts need to take a page out of our own playbook. The best way to counter the Extrovert Ideal is not to shout “in defense of introversion” statements from the rooftops. That’s what an extrovert would do. We need to realize the power we hold. We can pretend to be outgoing and gregarious when the time is right, and we can learn to work the spotlight if we need to, and we can succeed. But extroverts can practice being insightful, empathetic, and reflective all they want, we’re still going to be better at it. After all, who would be more successful in an Extrovert Ideal culture than the “man of action”? The contemplative man of action — that’s who. So be quiet, go back to thinking up ways to improve your life and the world, then put those ideas into action in your own way. And, it might not be a bad idea to ask your friend, the extrovert, to get involved with implementation when advantageous. He can at least be in charge of sales.