Cain, Susan (2013). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. London: Penguin Books.

Out of a desire to understand myself, and others, better, I recently read a popular psychology text on personalities: specifically introversion and its role in society, as compared with extraversion.  Relevant, well-researched, and highly engaging, I found this book to be a revelation on some deep-seated behaviours which people exhibit and on contemporary beliefs about how people ‘ought’ to be.

Not only has this given me greater clarity on my own personality, to see more of my strengths as well as my weaknesses, but I also feel I can use this information in mentoring.  This is partly because of an improved awareness of the variety of people I’m in contact with, but partly also because I can now see in what ways I can adapt to get the best out of everyone, students’ needs not being equal.

This reading works well alongside knowledge of different learning methods, for instance kinaesthetic activities as opposed to visual aids, and also alongside more specific discussions we may have in sessions covering, for example, giving presentations, working on group assignments, or even how best to take notes.  I would definitely recommend reading this work, especially to those working in a pedagogical setting.

Here are a few of the things I learned which pertains to our mentoring work:

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there is a spectrum of introversion and extraversion, and that there is bound to be some situational variation, while everyone is unique and has a different upbringing.  Yet, personality type is a topic worth exploring and acknowledging, enabling people to collaborate more successfully.  For instance, it appears from this reading that there is cultural variation, with more introversion in the East than in the West, which could explain why some students find it harder to criticise published work or tend to struggle with paraphrasing out of respect for the experts and hesitancy to voice their own ideas.

At the beginning of the book, Cain explains some of this background, specifically the cultural trend in the West: how, in North America, public speaking moved from the arena of lawyers, politicians, and clergy, to the business world almost overnight.  Dale Carnegie best harnessed this change in need and ethos in the early 20th century, a change from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality, an equally recent concept.  So the self-help book we know so well today evolved from something like seventeenth century John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’ Progress, foregrounding the importance of morality, integrity, and duty, to promoting charisma, energy, and social dominance as in Carnegie’s world famous How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This vastly changed the landscape for people’s aspirations and models of success, pushing introverts into the corner of a growing party, in which one’s social CV has come to mean as much – if not more – than a person’s skills, knowledge, and interests.  So Harvard Business School, for instance, bases its education around the notion that leaders need to think on their feet and appear consistently self-assured, so as not to lose the confidence of investors.  Though this means they can make swift decisions without the necessary facts, and can be prone to goal and reward-driven behaviour akin to gambling addictions.  Hollywood stars have become idolised, and fast talkers are frequently given job opportunities and promotions over steadier but quieter workers.  In addition, multitaskers may be heralded as the height of efficiency, though it has been shown in scientific studies that multitasking is actually just ‘switching back and forth between multiple tasks’, reducing productivity and accuracy by up to 50%.

However, the introverts who leave a party early, are lodged in the library on a Saturday night, delay their response to a question that others might answer immediately, or share a conversation after which you find you know very little about them but feel like you’ve been heard and understood for the first time in a long while, offer a vast array of talents which may be overlooked by today’s society.  For instance:

  • Great at listening, they excel in sales roles because they empathise with customers and their needs, and can solve their problem, not just push a product;
  • They have a fondness for in-depth conversation, so make great counsellors, instead of jumping in with their own life story at every turn;
  • They engage in better preparation for events like a presentation or interview;
  • Persistence, like Gandhi’s, is an introvert trait too, and when it comes to solving problems, they often stick with an issue for much longer than extraverts;
  • Better at avoiding pitfalls due to greater forethought, reflection, and threat sensitivity, they are not as reward sensitive, so take fewer risks and have less ambition than extraverts. Extraverts might win big, but they also might lose more often too;
  • And although introverts might be more likely to blush when feeling embarrassed, one study shows that people who blush are judged more positively by other, as it ‘signified concern for others’.

The book also includes advice throughout on how to cope in the world as an introvert.  For example:

  • Introverts can read social cues as well as, if not better than, extraverts, but they are not necessarily able to do this at the same time as having the conversation and concentrating on the content, hence they may prefer to people-watch more, or try one-to-ones, in which there is less incoming information;
  • If, however, an introvert is attending a party, or giving a talk for example, they should arrive at the venue early so that when other people come, they join a space the introvert has grown comfortable in;
  • When public speaking, it is perfectly normal to feel nervous with hundreds of eyes on us, as from an evolutionary perspective, it often meant that we were going to be dinner for something, so we all need to accept this feeling. But it can help to concentrate on subjects we’re passionate about, while paying attention to how our body feels when we’re relaxed and confident, to be able to emulate this when feeling nervous;
  • Introverts can also try breathing exercises to increase muscle usage, and thus volume and power when speaking;
  • As introversion often correlates with high sensitivity – that is a strong biological reception to incoming information with almost no filter, they need more quiet time, less coffee, and to approach new experiences slowly and gradually, like a child at the ocean’s edge dipping their toes into the water before going swimming. Even excitement needs to be regulated, so that the introvert does not become overwhelmed and end up experiencing an emotional crash;
  • And it is crucial to take time at the end of the day, between meetings, and so on, to recharge with a hobby, pets, a walk in the park, writing in a diary, or yoga. Where extraverts crave company to boost their energy, introverts may have to cancel a social event before a big meeting, or catch a breath of fresh air after a seminar.  While this behaviour may be occurring already, it’s important to recognise this as perfectly healthy, and it should also become more socially acceptable as any other equal rights issue.

What I love most about this book is that its main message is not that introversion is better than extraversion, or vice versa; but that both complement one another perfectly in a ‘healthy mix’.  Therefore, we should seek not only to discover who we are and what we can offer, but also to recognise the value others bring to the table, and how we can best work together.

So, for instance, one study looked at how extraverted and introverted leaders best suit different types of employees.  With proactive employees, who work hard and want to generate ideas, an introverted leader allows them the most freedom to try things, and boosts this productivity in a successive cycle.  Whereas, with passive employees, an extravert leader will best inspire them to achieve more.

And in other studies, it is shown that by trying to be someone you’re not – the opposite personality type – the body suffers from illnesses like stress and cardiovascular disease, while this behaviour colours our perception and even lexical choices: we are more likely to opt for negative words after repressing ourselves, than if allowed to feel how we need to at any given time.

Moreover, the book points out how solitude can actually be ‘magical’ in its own right, regardless of personality type.  Its benefits include:

  • ‘Deliberate Practice’, identified as key to exceptional achievement, as it allows the individual to identify their particular needs, to strive for improvement, monitor progress, and prevents distraction;
  • Perhaps surprisingly, compared to individual separate offices, open-plan offices (or libraries I guess) have a higher staff turn-over, less social cohesion, while they are also associated with greater sickness levels, less productivity, and impaired memory, on account of the lack of privacy and increased distraction raising heart rates and cortisol levels (the fight-or-flight hormone) more often. Plus, there is obviously less quiet time for intense work with frequent interruptions of all kinds;
  • Email and other online collaboration (take Wikipedia, for instance) can be much more productive and effective than face-to-face meetings, or Alex Osborn’s concept of group brainstorming. This was born in the 1940s and 1950s to encourage people to share their ideas more, though a later, unbiased study actually showed that a larger volume of ideas, which were of equal or higher quality, were actually contributed by individuals and not groups.  This is because not everyone feels comfortable shouting out in a group, some will sit back and let everyone else do the work, and some people take more time to generate the ideas in the first place.  Scarily, even brain activity is affected by being in a group, so that conforming isn’t just a conscious attempt to fit in, but a biological inevitability.

That’s a lot to ponder, and to adapt to in our sessions.  If you’re intrigued to learn more, I’d definitely recommend you read Cain’s book for more anecdotes, research, and tricks and tips on navigating everyday situations whichever end of the spectrum you may be on.

And if you’re wondering if you could share the personality of a host of famous introverts like Peter Pan’s author, J.M. Barrie, Frédéric Chopin, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, and Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak, you can try Cain’s quiz on p13.

Happy reading; and I wish you all a quiet evening – at least once in a while.




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