Book News: In Defense of Introverts

February 13, 2012 at 4:41 pm , by

A few weeks ago, I came across this cartoon and laughed out loud. See that second box? The one with the person excited about an evening at home, anything but barhopping or book club? That person is so me. And, like many introverts, I’ve felt bad about it more than once in my life. Like I was weird for retreating to the bathroom at parties when I just needed a break from all that merriment or too low-profile to be class president or newspaper editor because I wasn’t a “leader.” Author Susan Cain often felt like that, too, but she always suspected that it was the rest of the world—not her—that was getting it wrong. Now, her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking shines a light on introverts (whether we like it or not) and makes the case that we, too, have an important role in a world that reveres extroverts.

Recently, I chatted with Cain about the untapped power she champions in Quiet.

You think of yourself as an introvert. What has that meant in your life?

When I started practicing law, I thought my nature was going to be a disadvantage for me. But eventually, I realized I have a whole constellation of other qualities serving me well—like listening skills and preparing carefully. I wasn’t one to take over a meeting, but I was good at creating one-on-one alliances with people behind the scenes. And these skills can be very powerful. Also, at first I assumed that my personality was a function of gender—that the things I did were things a woman would do. But, then I started to look around and saw that plenty of women had different styles from me, just as plenty of men were more like me.

Are women often assumed to be introverted?

In some ways, yes, traditionally women have been expected to be quieter and more passive. So for these reasons, historically it’s been easier for a woman to be an introvert than a man. I think that’s changing now. I consider myself a strong feminist, but I do think that feminism can make things harder for female introverts, because of this model that says that you should be very bold and take the world by the horns. An introverted form of power has a very different style to it.

One of the biggest assumptions about introversion is that you can’t be a leader.

I profiled a lot of transformative leaders in history and business who were introverts: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi. Their strengths came, paradoxically, from the fact that they didn’t crave the spotlight. They were driven by caring for their causes, and I think that gave them a sincerity and authenticity that people felt right away. And recent research has actually started to figure this out in a business context. We’re beginning to find that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do.

You cite President Obama as an example of an introverted leader.

Yes, Obama is known to be much more comfortable in the presence of people he knows well. He prefers small groups. He’s criticized for not being “out there” more. And he’s known as a careful planner, which is probably one of the reasons he won the election in 2008. When he’s giving a speech and doing it well, you really feel the things he’s saying are the products of deep contemplation, not the sort of quick rhetoric of your typical politician.

I don’t mean to say that introversion is purely a strength when it comes to leadership, but neither is extroversion. Both of these styles have their pros and cons. And what many of the most receptive introverted leaders do—and this is true of Obama—is compensate in the areas where they’re not as strong by pairing up with somebody who is a natural extrovert. We can see this in his marriage. Michelle Obama is a much more extroverted person than her husband and connects more easily with audiences than he does.

At the Journal we’re all about saving marriages. What sort of conflict can arise if an introvert is married to an extrovert?

Many strong relationships are introvert-extrovert partnerships, but certain conflicts can tend to flare up again and again. For instance, one partner might want to socialize more than the other. The introvert might come home from work and feel like he’s spent, like he needs to recharge alone. But the extrovert comes home and she’s craving reconnection with her spouse. Once you have mutual understanding that each of these needs is legitimate, you can come up with solutions. Maybe the introverted partner takes a half-hour to himself each evening before rejoining the family at the dinner table. Maybe you agree to go out every Friday night, but stay home every Saturday night.

What change do you hope your book and continued research on introversion might bring about?

First, I hope to influence a change in people’s psyches. I’ve spoken to so many introverts—probably thousands by now—and I hear over and over again about this sense of shame in who they are, because they’ve been sent the message for so long that there’s something wrong with their natural preference. I’d also like to see structural changes in our schools and our workplaces—to have them redesigned, to work for introverts as well as extroverts.

Do you mean pulling away from the collaboration and brainstorming that has come to define education and many jobs, and that feels unnatural to many introverts?

Yes, though I’m not advocating leading away from it completely. I’m just advocating for more balance and for elevating the importance of solitude again. I think that for centuries we understood that solitude is fundamental to the human soul and creativity. We’ve lost sight of that, and I’d like to see it restored.

Photo of Susan Cain: Aaron Fedor

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