It’s not just the quiet

Reading - passtime of a lot of introvertsJust finished reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. As an introvert reading a book about introverts, it’s a bit like the cats watching cats meme.

I found myself nodding at many parts. Others not so much – like the idea that introverts need a lot of time to make a decision, cuz no. Cain does a good job of blending research in neuroscience, psychology and field trips to find out more about how introverts have been perceived and welcomed (or not) in history, and makes sure to offer us up some “famous introverts” to soothe our need to be recognized (Bill Gates, Woz, Al Gore, Rosa Parks, Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt…).

Parks’ story is one she comes back to several times, as a woman of “quiet courage” – turns out she had a run-in with the same bus driver she dealt with on the famous day, and she backed off that time. However, she had been a long-standing worker in civil rights in her own way–she wasn’t a leader, but she was strong in her beliefs. On the day when she said “no”, she was tired and believed she should keep her seat. All the stuff that came afterward was primarily the work of the¬†extroverts–like King.

I liked also that Cain twigged to the fact that in this cult of personality we call modern Americas, where we all “think different”, conformity is higher than ever – everything is about groupthink, groupwork and being “outgoing”, against study after study that shows working and thinking on one’s own actually results in more creativity, and more productive results.

In the business world, Cain cites several studies that put the idea that “brainstorming” works, and that open plan offices are conducive to better ideas and more productivity on their ass. Want to help people to be more productive, at least give them a mix of hidey-holes and places to interact. Open-plan workers have higher stress levels, higher turnover and lower productivity. Of course, the people who think all this stuff is good for business have come through what is now generations of kids who have been forced into group work for most of their school career, and who were ostracized and called out by teachers for being too quiet, or anti-social.

This was, in fact, what my entire “enrichment” education was in the 70′s and 80′s – if we weren’t brainstorming, we were assigned to teams to do some project. Never mind that I’m pretty sure the better part of the kids in enrichment were introverts, and looked on our time to do independent study as a “relief” from all of that forced interaction.

There’s some evidence that shows that introverts are physically more sensitive to stimulation – which makes sense. That baby who cries when there’s a loud noise or a fast-moving object? More likely to be introverted and not the excitable extrovert you might expect. The extrovert needs more stimulation to have the right levels of chemicals going in their brains.

There is such a thing as what I would call “situational extrovertism”–where introverts can be social, or direct, or charming even. But when we are done, we need to decompress. I have no problem speaking in front of large crowds, for example, but I need to do mental rehearsing beforehand, and I need several days afterward with no social engagements to “top up” my reserves.

Another good strategy for me is working at home – where I can control the amount of stimulation, and work through different projects as I choose to without interaction. Since a third to a half of the population is introverted, it’s yet another way that telecommuting can actually result in more productivity–except that it’s much more likely that the extroverts are running the show.

Cain offers up some ideas for how introverts and extroverts can get along, and why it’s a great combination when they work together–which I totally agree with. For me, having extroverts on my team and as my immediate boss is a way for me to exert influence without having to do all of the small talk myself, and I really hate small talk.

A good read if you aren’t aware of why Sally or Joe don’t want to go out every night like you do, or if you are Sally or Joe and you want to read about your tribe.