Suddenly, it’s fashionable to be an introvert. So fashionable that extroverts want to know how to become one, preferably in a public ceremony with all their friends there to applaud their rebirth.
Type in “Introvert” on the books section of Amazon and you’ll find half-a-dozen gurus explaining the mysteries of introversion. According to these books, we live in an extrovert-dominated world but in which introverts can still thrive in it if they are true to themselves and understand that, even though they are not extroverts, they are still normal. Once introverts grasp this, they can wield a “Quiet Power” over the world – although I assume they would never tell anyone that they’d done so.
Perhaps the most articulate (and least simplistic) proponent of this argument is Susan Cain.
Her book is called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. In the TED talk, she summarizes her argument with disarming charm.
I believe Cain’s charm carries the real message here. She isn’t addressing introverts, there’s nothing she can say that we don’t already know, she’s addressing the extrovert-dominated masses, charming them into seeing introverts as another flavour of normal, perhaps a little weird in a cute sort of way, but productive members of society, who, above all else, ARE NOT THREATENING.
Cain is trying to create a space for introverts to thrive in by telling only half the story. She politely does not describe what it means to be an extrovert: the insatiable appetite for stimulation (ANY stimulation) the threat of solitude, the prioritization of action over thought, the tendency to addiction, the need for association and acceptance, the endless, endless NOISE they need in order to thrive.
In my view, introverts and extroverts are born, not made. I’m talking about Eysenck’s version of introversion, a biochemically predetermined need to seek stimulation (extrovert) or filter stimulation (introvert) in order to function. Here’s a good, accessible, summary of the theory by the Benziger Group. In this version of the world, the need for arousal is distributed across the population in a Bell curve, in which 15% at either end are strongly extroverted or strongly introverted.
I’m in the strongly introverted 15%.
This is no more my fault than being in the top 15% in terms of intellect (true by most measures I’ve tried) or not being amongst the top 15% of most attractive males (confirmed by a glance into a mirror), but the fact of my introversion has shaped my life, my desires, my sense of self, more than any other physical characteristic.
Which is why I sense the omissions in Cain’s argument.
Neither extroverts nor introverts are normal. We occur naturally but we are, by definition, a significant deviation from the norm.
Social Darwinists might argue that we exist to improve the survival chances of the “normal” people by providing the population with survival-relevant capabilities that are necessary but would be burdensome if everybody had them.
As deviants, strongly extroverted or strongly introverted people need to find a survival niché for themselves or risk being rejected by the normal majority.
In our society, extroverts tend to create their niché through charismatic, applause-generating. risk-taking, excitement-packed acts that capture the imagination of the normal majority and make them not just LIKE extroverts, but want to be them or to follow them. The basic, instinctive, survival strategy of extroverts is: make them like me, make them envy me, make them fear me but never ever let them ignore me.
Introverts create their niché by creating stories, images, ideas, theories, research, data, music and art that lure the normal majority into using their imagination, into seeing things differently, into valuing introspection, into wondering what it would be like to retreat, from time to time, into a Fortress of Solitude. The basic, instinctive, survival strategy of introverts is: make them value the stimulation my thoughts bring, make them want more, make them more aware of what I contribute than who I am and, wherever possible convince them to leave me alone to produce more of the things I need and that I’ve taught them to value.
So how do strongly introverted people thrive in a strongly extrovert-dominated world? The answer is: they don’t. The world isn’t dominated by extroverts, it’s dominated by the normal people.
Normal people out-number us. They out-spend us. They are prone to purges when under threat. They instinctively distrust, and sometimes even fear, the extreme extroverts and introverts amongst them. That’s why, in their different ways, both groups do things to help them be valued by the normal people.
When the extrovert strategy succeeds, it produces the impression that society is dominated by extroverts. It is a strategy of faux-inclusion; a glamour the pulls the normal folks away from objective assessment of value and creates a hunger for thrill-based stimulation.
But glamours are not real. This is something that I believe all strongly introverted people understand almost at a genetic level. Extrovert glamours bounce off me. I don’t want to be them. I have to work hard to figure out why ANYBODY would want to be them. Introverts can see that the self-appointed extrovert-emperors have no clothes.
Perhaps there is more to Cain’s charm-offensive than soothing the normals. Perhaps she is also trying to avoid conflict between the extroverts and the introverts. Perhaps her complete silence on extroverts is a tacit olive branch, a way of showing that we don’t need to fight as long as we keep the normals off our backs.
I believe in the “Quiet Power” of the introverts. I’ve been exercising it all my life to do jobs that are normally associated with extroverts. I’ve succeeded because I’ve never seen my introversion as something I could change or would even want to change and because I’ve sold my ideas while using humour to erode the power of extroverts around me.
My clients and colleagues are used to me being a performer, something they don’t associate with introversion, but they also notice that I socialize less, I often work alone and in silence for hours at a time, and that I become bad-tempered if I’m forced to stay in group situations for too long.
I deal with this by calling upon the wisdom of Sam Lee, who I imagine was one of the world’s great introverts, and explain that, like Superman, I have more need than most for a Fortress of Solitude. Sometimes I will go further and explain that the reason it’s a Fortress is that we introverts need strong walls between us and all the noise the extrovert-dominated masses make so that we can hear the thing we value most: our own thoughts.