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Making some noise about introverts

The debate over the relative merits and demerits of introverts and extroverts has taken on a whole new dimension

Introvert CEOs like Warren Buffett (left) and Bill Gates are exceptions rather than the norm. Photo: Getty Images
Introvert CEOs like Warren Buffett (left) and Bill Gates are exceptions rather than the norm. Photo: Getty Images

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In 2012, the American writer Susan Cain published her best-selling book, Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking. The debate over the relative merits and demerits of introverts and extroverts is hardly new. But in the last 10 years, it has taken on a whole new dimension and edge, especially since the pandemic struck us two years ago.

With people being forced to stay at home as nations put citizens under lockdown, social media erupted with posts hailing the advent of a golden era for a much maligned personality type: the introvert. At last, their time had come. They could finally shine in their true glory, while the rest of the wide world, isolated from their social circles, lost their minds.

The assumption was that if you were an introvert and lucky enough to have a roof over your head, food on your table, and a stable source of income, you had entered an Arcadia of reclusion. Gone were the days of long commutes in crowded public transport, open-plan offices to suffer all day in, pesky colleagues to humour, the obligation to go partying on the weekends, or sit through family dinners wishing for the blessed hour when you could retire to the solitude of your bedroom.

Lockdown was the ultimate panacea for the nerds, while the extroverts, used to their social routines and rhythms, pined for company and resorted to hosting Zoom parties. And yet, it wasn’t all hunky-dory for one group and predictable misery for the other. As research from 2021 shows, a fair number of introverts were no less miserable during this period because, just like everyone else, they too craved company and connection with others. If this is news to you, you need to read Cain’s book to understand better the delicate spectrum along which personality traits manifest.

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Introverts have always had a bad rep. They are supposed to be asocial, reclusive, and far from affable. It’s common to equate introverts with misanthropes. Think of John Milton’s poem Il Penseroso, where the speaker, a withdrawn and pensive type, invokes the “divinest Melancholy”. He’s clearly not the sort you would want to invite to an evening of fun and games. More familiar to us is the iconic Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice, surly to the point of being hostile, sulking in a corner at endless balls with clenched teeth.

Such extreme perceptions arise out of fundamental misunderstandings, which Cain seeks to correct. Worse, the bias for the Extrovert Ideal—the proverbial fast-talking sales whiz who can charm anyone off their feet—has also resulted in a grossly skewed representation of introverts in leadership roles. This problem took root, and became endemic, in the US in the 1930s-40s, before the Extrovert Ideal became status quo among corporate cultures around the world.

Does introversion necessarily signal a dislike of other people? Cain’s answers with a resounding no
Does introversion necessarily signal a dislike of other people? Cain’s answers with a resounding no

As Cain shows, the Extrovert Ideal became the foundation on which self-help guru Dale Carnegie (of How To Win Friends And Influence People fame) built his empire. “Every American was to become a performing self” became the mantra, thanks to Carnegie’s ingenious marketing skills. It was the pep talk that a generation recovering from the Great Depression of the 1930s desperately needed. No longer was it enough to master the art of selling your products and services—you didn’t stand a chance of climbing the corporate ladder if you didn’t also aggressively sell your personal brand.

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Carnegie’s ideas, which are now the staple of the self-help industry, were highly influential in his time, to the point of being institutionalised. Cain writes, “Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that Harvard should reject the ‘sensitive, neurotic’ type and the ‘intellectually over-stimulated’ in favour of boys of the ‘healthy extrovert kind’.” We may no longer live in times of such overt biases but this line of thinking, favouring a certain outgoing personality type, has far from faded in contemporary corporate work culture.

This explains the preponderance of hugely successful and popular new-age corporate gurus like Tony Robbins. Cain, who spent a weekend attending one of his boisterous meet-ups, describes him sharply: “He strikes me as having a ‘hyperthymic’ temperament—a kind of extroversion-on-steroids characterized, in the words of one psychiatrist, by ‘exuberant, upbeat, overenergetic, and overconfident lifelong traits’ that have been recognized as an asset in business, especially sales.”

Should it surprise anyone that there are so few recognisably introverted employees in people-facing roles like sales? Or that few leaders in the corporate world pay attention to a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, thoughtful employee over one who is armed with a beaming smile, can speak nineteen to the dozen, and always has a PowerPoint deck ready? The curiously dissonant piece of this puzzle though, as Cain points out, is that “the ranks of effective CEOs turn out to be filled with introverts”—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, you name it. Yet they are the exceptions rather than the norm.

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For the average aspirational employee, eyeing a climb up the corporate ladder, the surest route to success is to complement hard work with hard sell, especially of their personal brand. It is a mindset that is inculcated from the earliest years of our lives. Highly-reactive children, who are diffident and seek out alone-time more often than their peers, tend to be coaxed and cajoled to participate in group activities—all in the name of socialisation. We are groomed to suppress our inner Charlie Brown and instead let loose our inner Lucy—bossy, brash and forever determined to get her own way.

But does it have to be this way? Does introversion necessarily signal a dislike of other people? Cain’s answers, to both questions, are a resounding no. Research shows that most of us are part-introverted and part-extroverted, one personality overriding the other depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Psychologist Brian Little’s research, which Cain dwells on extensively, builds up this thesis, which he calls the Free Trait Theory. A self-avowed introvert who loves nothing better than his quiet life with his wife in a remote cottage, Little infuses Robin Williams-like energy into himself when he is on stage lecturing students. Does this chameleon-ic shift in his persona make Little inauthentic? The answer isn’t as obvious as it may seem.

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“Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of taking on a ‘false’ persona for any length of time,” as Cain writes. “The genius of Little’s theory is how neatly it resolves this discomfort. Yes, we are only pretending to be extroverts, and yes, such inauthenticity can be morally ambiguous (not to mention exhausting), but if it’s in the service of love or a professional calling (then we are being true to ourselves).”

In the end, it all boils down to how far you are willing to stretch yourself. Introverts habitually require more down-time to recover from the fever and fret of daily life, to refuel their energy tanks. And if the pandemic has taught us one lesson, it is that periods of lull aren’t a bad idea at all. Timely rest and relaxation will only make us more productive. It’s an experiment high-performing extroverts could try out.

Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.

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