Saturday, June 01, 2013

Cane - Quiet

Susan Cane challenges what she calls the “cult of personality” of the modern era, a period of time when major importance has been placed on the way we appear, are perceived, and attract attention to ourselves through extroverted behaviors. Her analysis in Quiet (2012) is that we acquired the bias toward extroversion as a result of the exuberance of the 19th and early 20th century, a time when character was of greatest importance. Gradually, the U.S.A. (and perhaps other Western-influenced settings) shifted to value the way things appear over the substance of what they are. Most notable influencers in the direction of the “cult of personality” were the popular movements spawned by Dale Carnegie and Toastmaster groups. Perhaps this bias was only natural for an emerging nation of frontiersmen whose very DNA descended from hearty immigrants who were comfortable enough with risk to travel great distances and endure significant hardship only to have a chance at a better life. In contrast to the extroverted “cult of personality” that dominates so many of our current actions, Cane proposes that there is great value to introversion and she encourages a return to greater balance in valuing both the extrovert and introvert in and among us.

The first example that Cane used to urge that we honor introversion was Rosa Parks, described as “… small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’” (4%) The image one gets, which was evidently quite real, was of a woman who was so unassuming that, when she acted, her courage became so obvious that others had to recognize it and this is precisely why she had so much power as an introvert. In the cult of personality environment, introversion is characterized as overly sensitive, too serious, and shy to the point of discomfort. By contrast to this deficit perspective, Cane proposes a view of introversion characterized by listening to others, thinking things through before acting, and enjoying substantial rather than superficial engagement with others. Or, in another term, instead of being shy, introverts are simply portrayed as preferring environments that are not overstimulating (6%).

Contemporary examples of over-extroversion are offered in the personages of Tony Robbins and the dominant personality types so prevalent in some of the top MBA programs in the U.S.A. (i.e. Harvard in Cane’s analysis). She observed that the spin far outweighed the substance of those she interviewed among the ranks of Harvard elites. But, she offered hope for broadening the view of who counts by exploring the influence of social media where it is no longer necessary to demand the floor through extroverted behavior in order to speak your piece.

Besides advocating for introverts across a variety of groups and environments, Cane drew attention to specific sub-groups that tended to be more introverted as a result of cultural expectation. Specifically, Asian and Asian Americans were identified as frequently brushed over for lack of extroversion or gregariousness. For cultures that are more collectivist, seeking to stand out and bringing attention to oneself is a negative attribute; as an example, Asian students may offer their contribution meticulously and quietly and then Western students take the credit when the group reports or papers are submitted. Rather than viewing individuals or groups that are more inclined to introversion as deficient, Cane provided fascinating evidence of the value introverts bring. One example was in a Berkeley study conducted in the 1950s and 1960s where researchers analyzed the personalities of creative people and found that they “tended to be socially poised introverts.” (23%) Another study of violinists at an elite Music Academy in Berlin found that those who excelled were those who spent excessive hours practicing in solitude. Having myself spent many hours in solitude practicing piano, I know the benefit of focused attention completely separated from human contact; I have also come to recognize that my inability to separate myself from the social contact typical of an extroverted type in my youth probably cost me a career in music. The bottom line of these studies on creativity is that, if an organization has creative types, they should be allowed, even encouraged, to work alone when the object of their work is to be creative (which contradicts much of the popular advice about creativity coming from group interaction).

One of the unfortunate repercussions of there being many undervalued creative and reflective types seeking to survive in an extroverted world is that studies have found that they are much more susceptible to social and speaking anxiety and broader anxiety disorder in general (which is a complex interaction of psychology and physiology). Cane’s analysis is that anxiety among introverts is not about dysfunction but about a world dominated by extroverted expectations which just doesn’t work for those who are innately or culturally more introverted. In order to overcome this struggle, Cane lifts up those who were (or are) introverted and make a difference in our world – Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama. These individuals have to work to overcome the potentially stifling impact of introversion through finding others who struggle as well, desensitization to anxiety-producing situations, and through doing things that they love. There’s nothing like the antidote of passion to help one overcome anxiety (remember Rosa Parks?). Given the opportunity to be themselves, introverts bring incredible gifts to the world of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, persistence and compassion. And, perhaps we need to be a bit more cautious about extroverts whose package may bring higher risk than one might think – overconfidence unmatched by greater ability, imposition of their views on others, not listening deeply and openly, and rushing to conclusions and taking credit. The point is not to lift up or denigrate introversion or extroversion but to seek appreciation and balance, adopting a “Free Trait” (58%) approach where one can choose between what is natural and what is challenging but worth doing in order to accomplish a goal.

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