As an extreme introvert, I approached Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, prepared to accept her premise that “the single most important aspect of personality . . . is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.” After all, I have watched myself throughout my life choose schools and jobs and social occasions based in part on whether I thought I could participate from the corner, rather than from center stage. And I’ve definitely timed my restroom breaks for when I needed to recharge my social batteries.
Ms. Cain presents an interesting overview of the science that leads to differences between introverts and extroverts, as well as a multi-faceted case for why introverts are undervalued in American society. She describes how many introverts learn to “fake” extroversion to fit in better at school and work, and also explains how to deal with introverted children and co-workers.
So why did I come away feeling less than persuaded by the book?
Here are a few reasons:
1. Flexing One’s Style Isn’t “Faking”
Perhaps because I have never viewed the times when I have had to “fake” extroversion as “faking” it. I just did what I had to do to be persuasive in the moment. Yes, I would prefer to write out my positions to get people to do what I want, rather than converse or argue. But writing isn’t always the best approach. Some situations require personal interaction, whether in a large group or in extemporaneous Q&A sessions.
So I have learned to make presentations effectively, and I have learned to handle extemporaneous speaking. It’s not faking it; it’s getting the job done. When I am well-prepared, I can even enjoy these group interactions.
And I’ve developed enough flexibility in my presentation abilities that I can reorganize my material on the fly when need be. A few years ago, as I got up to present to a group of executives, I was told that my time had been cut from an hour to 15 minutes. I was able to focus them on the salient points and still got the job done.
Being effective is never “faking” it.
2. Extroverts Have to Adapt Also
Introverts aren’t the only ones who have to adapt. My extroverted friends have told me how they similarly need to flex their style to get their jobs done. They have to learn when to be quiet, and when to focus.
In fact, one of my most memorable moments as a manager was in talking to one of my extreme extrovert direct reports, who told me how much energy it took her to sit through a meeting when she had to listen and couldn’t speak out. This was the first time I understood what the Myers-Briggs consultants always said – that the difference between introverts and extroverts is whether they get their energy from being with other people or from being alone.
The key to management, I discovered, was letting each person run as far as they could within a few parameters. I gave my staff their objectives, and let them determine how to meet them. Both the introverts and the extroverts were more creative in attacking their goals than I could ever have been.
We all adapt, and we all benefit from learning to expand our styles.
3. We Are More than Introverts or Extroverts
Although I used to think that my introverted nature was the most salient aspect of my personality, in recent years I have come to believe that personality is far more complex than a single trait.
For example, I am also an extreme “J” on the “perceiving/judging” scale on the Myers-Briggs personality type. My “judging” trait makes me speak up in circumstances when my introversion might want me to be quiet. I am often the first person to respond to questions in group settings, because my “judging” trait makes me want to get to closure as quickly as possible. My introvert loses out when I want to get to a decision, or even just to move on.
Each of us needs to learn to use all aspects of our personalities to be effective. We are, in fact, more than the sum of our parts.
* * * * *
Is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking worth reading? Definitely, particularly for introverts who want to understand why they are the way they are and how the world perceives them. And also for extroverts who want to know how to approach introverts. Parents and managers who are having difficulty with introverts can benefit from both the neurology and psychology presented in the book.
But recognize that Susan Cain’s book is only a one-dimensional look at the world. We benefit most when we recognize and develop all our dimensions.