Monday, August 3, 2015

Quiet, an Insightful Take on Introversion

Have you ever been told it’s all right if while at a party you like to occupy a quiet corner to avoid socializing; that it’s okay to feel troubled by underrated emotions like doubt and fear; that maybe you were overlooked for a promotion because your colleague had the ‘right personality’ for the role; that there is nothing wrong with you if you feel overwhelmed by some social situations and take time to come to terms with them? Susan Cain argues, in Quiet, all this means you are blessed with the personality syndrome that some of the most creative and revolutionary thinkers have (or had): introversion.

Quiet makes a strong case for introversion (or introverts) by passionately arguing that it’s the introverts who were behind some of the greatest achievements of the human race (like the theory of relativity) and equally acerbically ascribing some of the problems in modern times (like the subprime mortgage issue) to our tendency to overlook introverts and place problems that require deeper insights – which are more likely to come, according to Cain, from introverts - at the service of exTaketroverts.

But is the barrier separating introversion from extroversion so simple? Aren’t we a bit of both? A person who is gregarious while among friends can be reserved among strangers. A person who is generally lighthearted can be surprisingly insightful, in some situations. Haven’t we seen many shy and reserved types excel in professional areas which are considered exclusive domains of extroverts?

Cain doesn’t challenge the theory of Carl Jung who said there is no such person as absolute introvert or extrovert and such a person would have his place only in a mental asylum…She says we share cross traits of introversion and extroversion and your personality type depends on which side of the divide the traits that are intense in you fall. To add nuance to this line of argument, she interviews people belonging to both personality types and also draws from her personal experience as an introvert.

However, Susan doesn’t restrict her research to interviews and personal experience, but delves into the scientific aspect of her subject, too – and establishes beyond doubt that introversion is a biological characteristic we are born with and not something we acquire during our lifetime. Children who are very alive to their environment – high reactive types - turn out to be introverts whereas those with low sensitivity to their environments become extroverts, low reactive types. Although introverts become more outgoing as years go by, they remain introverts at the core.

Courtesy of the high premium we place as a society on extroverted traits, Cain informs, there are many who hide their introversion and masquerade as extroverts only to wake up to their real selves when they meet with a crisis . Not only society at large but even corporations overrate extroverted traits and extroverts are misconstrued as ‘natural leaders’, an error of judgement which caused the subprime crisis where those showing risk taking capabilities (an extroverted trait) where put in positions of leadership and decision making overlooking those less inclined to take risks or prefer taking calculated and thoughtful risks instead of plunging headlong into something they know little about.

Cain interviewed children of migrants coming from eastern cultures and concludes that, unlike in the west, extroversion is not prized so much in the east (especially in Confucian cultures) where silence is considered golden and observation of hierarchies (age-based or social) appreciated. (It reminded me of a Time magazine article which said that one of the reasons democracy doesn’t flourish in Asia is that there is too much insistence on unquestioning respect for people in positions of power - like a teacher, a ruling family or an older person – which runs contrary to the very idea of democracy which bases itself on questioning.)

The introverted children Cain interviewed, in some of the most prestigious American institutions, mostly said they wanted to be extroverts to be more in sync with how their institutes want them to be.

Being an introvert herself and being very proud of being one, Cain sometimes reads a little biased towards introverts. Almost all the introverts she interviewed and mentions in Quiet are either stupendously successful (like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs etc.) or hold promise for success (like those migrant children) – sometimes reading like a motivational book for introverts rather than an analytical effort on the subject.

Cain looks at cultures other than American but very briefly and broadly – and thus misses a point or two about her subject. For example, in India, as in America, extroverted traits enjoy greater social approval than their introspective counterparts, but the virtues of quiet are not altogether overlooked.

These are the two flaws I found in what is otherwise a spectacular book.

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