There’s a new guy in my office, and I’m not talking to him. It’s not anything personal, mind you. He seems like a nice enough sort, a diligent worker with good hygiene—and what more can you ask of the fella three cubicles over? But I’m not much for small talk around the office; I just do my best to smile and grunt “hello” at people when I arrive in the morning. I’m not trying to be a jerk—I’m just not the person who’s going to ask if you want to run downstairs for coffee. So me and the new guy, we haven’t exactly hit it off yet.
Susan Cain would peg me right away as an introvert. By the best reckoning available, about one-third of North Americans are naturally introverted; if you aren’t one yourself, you work with one, or you’re the partner or parent of one. Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, has been researching and writing about the subject for years, and her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (Crown), synthesizes much of that research. It’s an investigation into the value society places on introverts and the science that makes us more or less outgoing. Cain also explores when, and how, introverts should play against type.
There are an assortment of clinical definitions for the terms “introvert” and “extrovert,” but for Cain’s purposes it’s not important to get tripped up by those fine distinctions. Essentially, Cain writes, “introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation they need to function well.” The former might find a comfortable level of stimulation from doing a crossword puzzle, or from a one-on-one conversation. The latter might prefer skydiving or meeting new people. And Cain notes that introversion isn’t necessarily the same thing as shyness or misanthropy. An introvert’s reluctance to speak up in a meeting doesn’t come from timidness or loathing one’s co-workers, but most likely from being overstimulated. That isn’t to say introverts can’t push themselves to contribute in a meeting, or to illuminate a dinner party; it’s just that afterward, we’re likely to need to decompress.
The level of stimulation we each find comfortable has something to do with both nature and nurture. Our natural inclinations seem to be connected to the individual sensitivity of our amygdalae, the part of the brain that functions as the “emotional switchboard,” and to how actively we each respond to dopamine— a “reward chemical” released in the brain when it anticipates attaining something pleasurable, like sex or chocolate cheesecake. Studies suggest that extroverts have more active reward systems in their brains, propelling them to more aggressively seek that dopamine “buzz.”
As for nurture, Cain makes a compelling case that it shoos most of us down the path to extroversion, at least in North America. She cites the work of cultural historian Warren Susma, who has traced a shift over the past two centuries from what he calls a culture of character to a culture of personality. (The notion of “having a good personality,” he believes, only really developed within the last hundred years.) Previously, we idealized discipline, honour, and intellectual and moral seriousness. But relatively recent trends—urbanization, mass immigration, the rise of big business—have found us more frequently living and working alongside strangers rather than neighbours; as Cain writes, “facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom [we] had no civic or family ties.” Americans responded “by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company’s latest gizmo but also themselves.”
The new emphasis on the extrovert ideal, she argues, is reflected everywhere—from the way we educate our kids in a school system increasingly skewed toward group work and participation, to the traits most commonly rewarded in the corporate world. And despite lessons learned from the economic crisis—where, arguably, too many extroverted risk-takers in leadership positions wrought financial ruin—and the value of having quiet leaders who, as Good to Great author Jim Collins puts it, “build not their own egos but the institutions they run,” a workplace stigma around introversion still exists.
But should introverts do anything to try to break out of their shells? If there are physiological limits on who we are, asks Cain, do we “attempt to manipulate our behaviour within the range available to us, or should we simply be true to ourselves?” She finds her answer in the research of ex-McGill and current Cambridge psychology professor Brian Little and his “free trait theory.” Little believes that, though we all have fixed traits, we can act out of character to serve “core personal projects”—people we love or work we care about. Thus can introverts join the PTA at their kid’s school or be assertive in salary negotiations. It’s exhausting, but we are capable of doing so because we have good cause.
Still, breaking out of one’s shell is a skill that needs to be developed. According to Cain, introverts have to embrace their individual “sweet spot”—the level at which we are optimally stimulated—and not be shy about doing whatever it takes to maintain that equilibrium. One New York philanthropist she interviews writes anecdotes on index cards and sneaks peeks at them in quiet moments at events, to help him navigate the cocktail chatter of the fundraising circuit. Little, himself an introvert, admits that after each lecture he delivers, he has to race to a bathroom and hide in a stall.
For the introverted reader, some of the value of Quiet comes from normalizing our disposition and the coping mechanisms we use to get through the workday. For our extroverted friends, the book should also serve as a helpful explainer for the quieter third of the office. Not that we introverts can expect them to do all the work. Since I like my job—I’d call it a core personal project—I guess I should suffer the discomfort and invite the new guy out for coffee.
Even if I need 20 minutes in the men’s room afterward.