Book Review – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)

Cultural norms in many countries these days favor the extrovert ideal, yet a surprising number of successful CEOs are introverts.

Cultural norms in many countries these days favor the extrovert ideal — in the US traceable to Dale Carnegie and the self-help genre that followed. In Evangelical Christianity this preference is really obvious as well — thus an introvert could feel really ill at ease either at a religious service or at a motivational talk. To be an introvert could be seen as a handicap, an abnormality to be remedied – instead of an innate temperament, from even as young an age as kindergarten and grade school.

Yet there are advantages either temperaments — even in leadership, extrovert leaders are better at motivating passive subordinates while introvert leaders are better at leading pro-active team members. Even at top business schools like Harvard, the temple of extroversion, in some group activities it is found that some groups fail because extroverts hijack the group discussion to the detriments of ideas proposed by introverted team members. In psychological tests as well, introverts tend to score better and perform more logically — but if extroverts are artificially slowed down so they think as carefully they can score as well.

There are links between intro/extroversion and sensitivity — perhaps counter-intuitively, highly sensitive babies are more likely to end up introverts, and less sensitive ones as extroverts. Looking deeper this makes good sense – highly sensitive people are more easily overwhelmed by outside stimuli, while less sensitive people are easily bored by lack of stimuli. Back to psychological studies, introverts tend to do better when doing math problems quietly while extroverts when talking it out loud — and the performance is inverted when introverts are forced to talk through the problems and extroverts to keep quiet.

Despite the cultural preference for extroverts in the West (the situation in Asian countries — the author is over-generalizing here but she really means East Asia, esp the Confucian belt — is the opposite) , a surprising number of successful CEOs are introverts. Better listening skill and ability to focus on a single task.

In meetings they tend to prefer sitting in the corner where they can observe, rather than at the center of attraction. Even in studies where introverts and extroverts are paired in conversations and then ask to evaluate how it went, introverts do as well or even better if they are played back the recording. They do less well when asked immediately at the end of the conversation though – perhaps overwhelmed by the social task and so less able to multitask with keeping track of how well it is going.

It can be hard for kids who happen to have the inverse personality trait from their parents (especially introvert kids raised by extroverts) if the parents can’t accommodate this and instead of nurturing the kids’ interests while attempting to wean the kids gradually into social situations, the parents encourage them to plunge in.

Lack of understanding is not limited to parent-children relationship — marital relationship can succumb to misunderstanding between the two types. There is the additional danger that if the male is the introverted one the relationship problem is dismissed using gender stereotype. Both types also handle conflicts differently, introverts more likely to avoid emotional escalations (until they reach their limit) while extroverts more likely to show emotion when arguing (and not “getting” this preference causes a lot of misunderstanding).

There is hope though – even some highly charming public speakers and professors, it turns out, are introverts — specifically “pseudo-extroverts”.

The trick to pulling it off without hating oneself (or succumbing to nervous breakdown), according to the Free Trait Theory, is that you put on the extroverted persona only in the service of your priority personal goals (e.g. a professor who loves to see young minds flourish, and so put on a gregarious persona).
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