Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Susan Cain

Created on Tuesday, August 13, 2013.
 

Reflects on the advantages and strengths of introverts, and how to navigate the extrovert world.

 
← Prev   |   Next →

Finland is a famously introverted nation. Finnish joke: How can you tell if a Finn likes you? He’s staring at your shoes instead of his own.

 

Carnegie’s metamorphosis from farmboy to salesman to public-speaking icon is also the story of the rise of the Extrovert Ideal. Carnegie’s journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children. America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover. In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of having a good personality was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer, Susman famously wrote. Every American was to become a performing self.

 

Social anxiety disorder which essentially means pathological shyness is now thought to afflict nearly one in five of us. The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), the psychiatrists bible of mental disorders, considers the fear of public speaking to be a pathology not an annoyance, not a disadvantage, but a disease if it interferes with the sufferers job performance. It’s not enough, one senior manager at Eastman Kodak told the author Daniel Goleman, to be able to sit at your computer excited about a fantastic regression analysis if you’re squeamish about presenting those results to an executive group. (Apparently it’s OK to be squeamish about doing a regression analysis if you’re excited about giving speeches.)

 

Woz often worked alone. This was not necessarily by choice. Like many technically inclined kids, he took a painful tumble down the social ladder when he got to junior high school. As a boy he’d been admired for his science prowess, but now nobody seemed to care. He hated small talk, and his interests were out of step with those of his peers. A black-and-white photo from this period shows Woz, hair closely cropped, grimacing intensely, pointing proudly at his science-fair-winning Adder/Subtractor, a boxlike contraption of wires, knobs, and gizmos. But the awkwardness of those years didn’t deter him from pursuing his dream; it probably nurtured it. He would never have learned so much about computers, Woz says now, if he hadn’t been too shy to leave the house.

 

A mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries corroborates the results of the games. Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight stress hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others. Indeed, excessive stimulation seems to impede learning: a recent study found that people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street. Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.

 

Something similar happened at Reebok International when, in 2000, the company consolidated 1,250 employees in their new headquarters in Canton, Massachusetts. The managers assumed that their shoe designers would want office space with plenty of access to each other so they could brainstorm (an idea they probably picked up when they were getting their MBAs). Luckily, they consulted first with the shoe designers themselves, who told them that actually what they needed was peace and quiet so they could concentrate. This would not have come as news to Jason Fried, cofounder of the web application company 37signals. For ten years, beginning in 2000, Fried asked hundreds of people (mostly designers, programmers, and writers) where they liked to work when they needed to get something done. He found that they went anywhere but their offices, which were too noisy and full of interruptions. That’s why, of Fried’s sixteen employees, only eight live in Chicago, where 37signals is based, and even they are not required to show up for work, even for meetings. Especially not for meetings, which Fried views as toxic. Fried is not anti-collaboration; 37signals home page touts its product’s ability to make collaboration productive and pleasant. But he prefers passive forms of collaboration like e-mail, instant messaging, and online chat tools. His advice for other employers? Cancel your next meeting, he advises. Don’t reschedule it. Erase it from memory. He also suggests No-Talk Thursdays, one day a week in which employees aren’t allowed to speak to each other.

 

Kafka, for example, couldn’t bear to be near even his adoring fiance while he worked:

You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.

 

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four. The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups, writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority. The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research professors who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.

 

Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of ones peers. Osborn’s rules of brainstorming were meant to neutralize this anxiety, but studies show that the fear of public humiliation is a potent force. During the 198889 basketball season, for example, two NCAA basketball teams played eleven games without any spectators, owing to a measles outbreak that led their schools to quarantine all students. Both teams played much better (higher free-throw percentages, for example) without any fans, even adoring home-team fans, to unnerve them.

 

The volunteers in the Asch and Berns studies didn’t always conform. Sometimes they picked the right answer despite their peers influence. And Berns and his team found something very interesting about these moments. They were linked to heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with upsetting emotions such as the fear of rejection. Berns refers to this as the pain of independence, and it has serious implications. Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.

 

Our schools should teach children the skills to work with others cooperative learning can be effective when practiced well and in moderation but also the time and training they need to deliberately practice on their own. It’s also vital to recognize that many people especially introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work.

 

Psychologists often discuss the difference between temperament and personality. Temperament refers to inborn, biologically based behavioral and emotional patterns that are observable in infancy and early childhood; personality is the complex brew that emerges after cultural influence and personal experience are thrown into the mix. Some say that temperament is the foundation, and personality is the building. Kagan’s work helped link certain infant temperaments with adolescent personality styles

 

The parents of high-reactive children are exceedingly lucky, Belsky told me. The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing these kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable for worse, but also for better. He describes eloquently a high-reactive child’s ideal parent: someone who can read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent. This advice is terrific for all parents, of course, but it’s crucial for raising a high-reactive child.

 

If you were a high-reactive baby, then your amygdala may, for the rest of your life, go a bit wild every time you introduce yourself to a stranger at a cocktail party. But if you feel relatively skilled in company, that’s partly because your frontal cortex is there to tell you to calm down, extend a handshake, and smile. In fact, a recent fMRI study shows that when people use self-talk to reassess upsetting situations, activity in their prefrontal cortex increases in an amount correlated with a decrease of activity in their amygdala.

 

Because it is impossible to control the blush intentionally, Dijk speculates, blushing is an authentic sign of embarrassment. And embarrassment, according to Keltner, is a moral emotion. It shows humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace. It’s not about isolating the person who feels ashamed (which is how it sometimes feels to easy blushers), but about bringing people together.

 

Keltner has tracked the roots of human embarrassment and found that after many primates fight, they try to make up. They do this partly by making gestures of embarrassment of the kind we see in humans looking away, which acknowledges wrongdoing and the intention to stop; lowering the head, which shrinks ones size; and pressing the lips together, a sign of inhibition. These gestures in humans have been called acts of devotion, writes Keltner. Indeed, Keltner, who is trained in reading peoples faces, has studied photos of moral heroes like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama and found that they feature just such controlled smiles and averted eyes. In his book, Born to Be Good, Keltner even says that if he had to choose his mate by asking a single question at a speed-dating event, the question he would choose is: What was your last embarrassing experience? Then he would watch very carefully for lip-presses, blushing, and averted eyes. The elements of the embarrassment are fleeting statements the individual makes about his or her respect for the judgment of others, he writes. Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another. In other words, you want to make sure that your spouse cares what other people think. It’s better to mind too much than to mind too little.

 

Extroverts dopamine pathways appear to be more active than those of introverts. Although the exact relationship between extroversion, dopamine, and the brains reward system has not been conclusively established, early findings have been intriguing. In one experiment, Richard Depue, a neurobiologist at Cornell University, gave an amphetamine that activates the dopamine system to a group of introverts and extroverts, and found that the extroverts had a stronger response. Another study found that extroverts who win gambling games have more activity in the reward-sensitive regions of their brains than victorious introverts do. Still other research has shown that the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a key component of the brains dopamine-driven reward system, is larger in extroverts than in introverts. By contrast, introverts have a smaller response in the reward system, writes psychologist Nettle, and so go less out of their way to follow up [reward] cues. They will, like anyone, be drawn from time to time to sex, and parties, and status, but the kick they get will be relatively small, so they are not going to break a leg to get there. In short, introverts just don’t buzz as easily.

 

Extroverts appear to allocate most of their cognitive capacity to the goal at hand, while introverts use up capacity by monitoring how the task is going. But introverts seem to think more carefully than extroverts, as the psychologist Gerald Matthews describes in his work. Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately. Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently: if you leave them to their own devices, the introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events from their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what’s happening around them. It’s as if extroverts are seeing what is while their introverted peers are asking what if.

 

It’s because of relationship honoring, for example, that social anxiety disorder in Japan, known as taijin kyofusho, takes the form not of excessive worry about embarrassing oneself, as it does in the United States, but of embarrassing others. It’s because of relationship-honoring that Tibetan Buddhist monks find inner peace (and off-the-chart happiness levels, as measured in brain scans) by meditating quietly on compassion. And it’s because of relationship-honoring that Hiroshima victims apologized to each other for surviving. Their civility has been well documented but still stays the heart, writes the essayist Lydia Millet. “I am sorry,” said one of them, bowing, with the skin of his arms peeling off in strips. “I regret I am still alive while your baby is not.” “I am sorry,” another said earnestly, with lips swollen to the size of oranges, as he spoke to a child weeping beside her dead mother. “I am so sorry that I was not taken instead.”

 

“In the long run,” said Ni, “if the idea is good, people shift. If the cause is just and you put heart into it, it’s almost a universal law: you will attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence. The people I’m thinking of are very persistent in their day-to-day, person-to-person interactions. Eventually they build up a team.”

 

Gandhi himself ultimately rejected the phrase passive resistance, which he associated with weakness, preferring satyagraha, the term he coined to mean firmness in pursuit of truth. But as the word satyagraha implies, Gandhi’s passivity was not weakness at all. It meant focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way.

 

Participation places a very different set of demands on the brain than observing does. It requires a kind of mental multitasking: the ability to process a lot of short-term information at once without becoming distracted or overly stressed. This is just the sort of brain functioning that extroverts tend to be well suited for. In other words, extroverts are sociable because their brains are good at handling competing demands on their attention which is just what dinner-party conversation involves. In contrast, introverts often feel repelled by social events that force them to attend to many people at once.

 

For many introverts like David, adolescence is the great stumbling place, the dark and tangled thicket of low self-esteem and social unease. In middle and high school, the main currency is vivacity and gregariousness; attributes like depth and sensitivity don’t count for much. But many introverts succeed in composing life stories much like David’s: our Charlie Brown moments are the price we have to pay to bang our drums happily through the decades.

 

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they’re difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you’re done.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2016.