You're Probably Thinking About Introversion Wrong. Here's What Everyone Should Know

You're Probably Thinking About Introversion Wrong. Here's What Everyone Should Know Hero Image
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If you haven't read Susan Cain’s 2013 breakout best-seller Quiet, you've certainly heard of it. Over the past four years, Cain’s treatise on introversion in an extroverted world has changed the landscape of our cult of personality, creating cracks in the status quo that leave room for introverts to shine through.

Almost exactly a year ago, Cain’s follow-up, Quiet Power, was released. The book targets young people trying to navigate the difficulties of growing up and finding themselves with the added complexities (as beautiful as they are difficult) of being introverted.

When we interviewed Cain last summer, we were curious about why she felt that speaking to the next generation was so important and what she hoped people would take away from the book. Her response says it better than we ever could.

[I hope when people finish reading Quiet Power, they understand] that introverts—from J.K. Rowling to Bill Gates to your best friend since kindergarten—contribute to the world because of, not despite, our quiet, reflective temperaments. I want people—especially children—to appreciate their natural superpowers. I’ve heard from so many adults who told me that if only they’d understood these powers when they were kids, their whole lives could have been different.

With that in mind, we’ve included two complementary excerpts here—one from Quiet and one from Quiet Power—to kick off your summer reading with ideas you can really sink your teeth into.

"Quiet" by Susan Cain

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Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts—in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.

(Given that the United States is among the most extroverted of nations, the number must be at least as high in other parts of the world). If you’re not an introvert yourself, you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.

So, where are all the introverts?

If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like— jolts them into taking stock of their true natures.

You have only to raise the subject of this book with your friends and acquaintances to find that the most unlikely people consider themselves introverts.

Why are we hiding?

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk- taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.

We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual—the kind who’s comfortable "putting himself out there." Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

Introverts often feel like second-class citizens.

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second- class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

How does the Extrovert Ideal manifest in our relationships?

The Extrovert Ideal has been documented in many studies, though this research has never been grouped under a single name. Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better- looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones.

The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas. Even the word introvert is stigmatized—one informal study, by psychologist Laurie Helgoe, found that introverts described their own physical appearance in vivid language ("green-blue eyes," "exotic," "high cheekbones"), but when asked to describe generic introverts they drew a bland and distasteful picture ("ungainly," "neutral colors," "skin problems").

But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer—came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.

"Quiet Power" by Susan Cain

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I’ve come to realize not only how important it is to follow my instincts and interests, but also to express my feelings and explain my actions to others. Here’s an example that might be familiar to you: Say you’re walking through the hallway, from one class to another, deep in thought or possibly overwhelmed by the noise and crowds. You pass a friend or classmate and glance at her briefly, but you’re so preoccupied that you don’t manage to stop to say hi and chitchat. You haven’t meant to be rude or hurtful, but your friend thinks you’re angry about something.

You can help friends understand.

Be on the lookout for moments of misunderstanding such as this one, and do your best to explain what you were thinking and feeling. An extroverted friend—and maybe even an introverted one—likely won’t guess that you were distracted by your thoughts or by too much sensory stimulation, and your explanation will make all the difference.

Don't expect everyone to get it.

Not everyone will understand your nature, though, even if you try to explain it. When Robby, a teenager from New Hampshire, first learned about introversion, he felt a great sense of relief. He had a tendency to turn quiet in large groups, and although he’d always felt comfortable talking and joking with his closest friends, he had a limit.

"After a couple of hours I’m like, 'Whoa, I can’t do this.' It’s draining. There’s a wall that goes up and I don’t want to talk to anyone. It’s not physical exhaustion. It’s mental exhaustion."

Robby tried to explain the differences between introverts and extroverts to an outgoing friend, but she couldn’t understand his perspective. She thrived in loud, busy places and didn’t see why he needed to be alone so often.

Another friend of his, Drew, grasped the idea immediately. Drew was more of an ambivert. He wasn’t as outgoing as his younger sister, but he wasn’t as reserved as his parents, either. The more he talked with Robby about what it was like to be introverted, the more he wanted people to understand both sides of his own personality.

Openness is the first step to increasing understanding.

As an amateur filmmaker, Drew had been experimenting with a new animation style, and after researching the subject of introversion, he produced an animated, graphics-intensive public service announcement about what it means to be quiet. Drew posted it on YouTube, but that was only the start. He was also a producer of the high school’s television news show. Once a week, every student in the school watched the latest episode, and in one of these Drew included his PSA on introverts. The response was overwhelming; even one of the teachers, who was secretly introverted, expressed his gratitude.

"I was able to bring the whole school community to an understanding," Drew said. "For weeks afterward, people would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that was awesome!’" His friend Robby thanked him more than anyone.

Even if your school isn’t this progressive, know that introverts are just as valuable and likable as extroverts.

Every school could benefit from a deeper understanding of the different strengths and needs of introverted and extroverted students. The middle and high school years are the most difficult times to be introverted, because when hundreds of kids are crammed together in a single building it can feel as if the only way to gain respect and friendship is through vivacity and visibility.

But there are so many other great qualities to have, such as the ability to focus deeply on topics and activities, and a talent for listening with empathy and patience. These are two of the "superpowers" of introverts. Channel them; find your passions and pursue them wholeheartedly. Then you will not only survive but also thrive.

Here's how to stand out quietly:

Sometimes it’s natural for the stress and drama of the school day to get to you. But you can rise above all that with your inner self intact. Here are a few quick tips that you can always refer back to:

1. Understand your needs.

The boisterous environments common to schools are often taxing to introverts. Acknowledge that sometimes there will be a mismatch between you and your environment, but try not to let it stop you from being you. Find quiet times and places to recharge your batteries. And if you prefer to socialize with one or two friends at a time, rather than in a big group, that’s just fine! It can be a relief to find people who feel the same way, or who just understand where you’re coming from.

2. Look for your own circle.

You may find that your sweet spot is with athletes, coders, or with people who are just plain nice whether or not your interests are perfectly aligned. If you need to make a checklist of things to talk about in order to get a friendship rolling, go for it.

3. Communicate.

Make sure your closest friends understand why you retreat or become quiet at times during school; talk to them about introversion and extroversion. If they’re extroverts, ask them what they need from you.

4. Find your passion.

This is crucial to everyone, regardless of personality type, but it’s especially important for introverts, because many of us like to focus our energy on one or two projects we really care about. Also, when you’re feeling scared, genuine passion will lift you up and give you the excitement you need to propel you through your fear.

5. Expand your comfort zone.

We can all stretch to some degree, pushing past our apparent limitations in the service of a cause or a passion project. And if you’re stretching into an area that really frightens you—for many people, public speaking falls into this category—make sure to practice in small, manageable steps. You’ll read more about this in chapter 13.

6. Be aware of your body language.

Smiling will not only make other people comfortable around you—it will also make you happier and more confident. This is a biological phenomenon: Smiling sends a signal to the rest of your body that all is well. But this principle is not just about smiles: Pay attention to what your body does when you’re feeling confident and at ease—and what it does when you feel tense.

Crossing your arms, for example, is often a reaction to nervousness, and it can make you seem—and feel—closed off. Practice arranging your body in the positions that don’t signal distress—and that make it feel good.

Want to know more? You can see Susan’s own words about Quiet Power during her appearance on New York One.

Excerpt from Quiet Power by Susan Cain. Copyright ©2016 by Susan Cain. Published by Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House.