Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Introverts, Fly your Colors

If you've ever been pressured to act a part, you know how exhausting it is. If you're in a world where you don't feel at home, you might think something is wrong with you. This is the theme of a new book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.(1) It's estimated that one-third to one-half of people are introverts, yet American culture reveres extroverts and sets up schools, homes and workplaces for interaction. Think open concept offices and schools and big, airy houses.

Give me a quiet classroom and a Craftsman house with private nooks and crannies if I have to live with someone. (I don't, and don't want to.) I spent four years in a noisy open concept grade school, where I quickly developed headaches and insomnia. My mother lost part of her hearing during her rehabilitation in the din of a noisy nursing home.

My life now has a Do Not Disturb sign: no Facebook page, cell phone, listed phone number, iPod, TV reception, roommate, kids, or significant other. I don't go to my own birthday parties and I'd pay not to go to family gatherings (they give me a splitting headache). I'm not mad at anyone or being ascetic, nor would I wish such a life on a social butterfly: this is just who I am, and I'm happy with it.

Cain, the author of Quiet, cites clinical studies showing that introverts' brains process experiences differently--and that we're different from the time we're babies. Basically, introverts are easily overstimulated and our amygdala (ancient reptile brain associated with fear) has a stronger reaction than that of extroverts. We can learn skills to cope with things like public speaking or interviewing, but our temperament can't be molded to turn us into party animals. Bizarre management ideas like putting engineers in a fishbowl-like office or playing laser-tag to build teamwork or trying to change someone by fiat (I went through all of this nonsense when I was an engineer) are a waste of time. And I was frequently sick during that time.

Putting yourself out there wasn't always the norm. Emily Post, for all her advice on getting on with others, states in the 1940 edition of Etiquette, "DON'T ATTRACT ATTENTION" (emphasis in original). "There is nothing that stamps the vulgarian more than advertising his possessions or achievements by loud word of mouth--anywhere! ...Do not expose your private affairs, feelings or innermost thoughts in public. You are knocking down the walls of your house when you do."(2)

If you're an introvert who feels pressured play a role, I hope I've inspired you to be yourself as much as possible. People can spot a phony. They'll respect a real curmudgeon more than a fake conformist. I offer some recommended reading and viewing (below). These aren't introverts who need a makeover to get the guy or girl: they include smart, ambitious, courageous, moral, funny, tough, loyal, and ruthless people. At this writing, all the movies and TV shows are available through Netflix; all the books are probably available at your library. (Only two of these are American. Sigh.)


  • Detective Sherlock Holmes is likely the most revered introvert of literature. 
  • Reclusive detective L investigates the mass murder of criminals in the TV series Death Note. (For all the creators' attempts to make L unattractive, hordes of fangirls adore him.)
  • Jane Austen heroines Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, and Anne Elliot of Persuasion prudently navigate the social minefield of Regency England.
  • Zoe kicks butt, Simon plots capers and digs out bullets, and River will either "blow up the ship or rub soup in our hair" in the cult TV drama Firefly.
  • Quiet samurai Jin clashes with extrovert Mugan and everyone else who gets in his way in Samurai Champloo.
  • Shy IT guys Moss and Roy get up to mischief in The IT Crowd. If you like silly comedy, this TV show is knee-slapping funny.
  • A humble hotel maid takes up chess and takes on a champ in the movie Queen to Play.
  • Will, a hyperobservant psychiatrist, and go-to guy Henry help unusual creatures and deal with others' outsize egos in the TV show Sanctuary.
  • Genius researcher Lisbeth Salander exacts justice and takes on all comers in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.
  • If you haven't read or seen Harry Potter because you think it's just for kids, go check it out (starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Introverts Neville and Luna stand up to Harry's nemesis, Voldemort, while Professor Snape swims with the sharks in stories about friendship, courage, sacrifice, and adventure.
1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. 2012.
2. Etiquette by Emily Post. 1940, pp. 36-37.

4 comments:

Angel said...

You may also want to check "The Highly Sensitive Person" by Dr. Elaine Aron. She posits that introversion and high sensitivity are two separate but often correlated traits, and she also talks about highly sensitive people processing stuff in their brains differently than non-highly sensitive people.

I recently moved from a house where the TV was on all the time, to a place filled with blessed silence. I feel like I am rediscovering myself. I need my silence and my solitude.

Lori Miller said...

That's still a popular book--on 2 of 13 available in the Denver Public Library system.

I recently read that the latest thing is hotels and resorts with no TV and no internet access--just wonderful quiet.

Italia said...

The author of “Quiet” is an admitted introvert. She did a wonderful job countering misconceptions about introversion. As an introvert myself I have always felt inferior at school and work compared to my very talkative and outgoing peers. Introverts are not people with a personality flaw. They are people who recharge their batteries by being alone while extroverts recharge theirs by socializing. Introverts are thinkers, sensitive, serious, thoughtful, and reserved people. While they appear quiet and repelling, their minds are actually racing with creative ideas and planning their next exciting project rather than wasting time with idle small talk.

Lori Miller said...

As we used to say here, there's a good reason people have two ears and one mouth.

Even extroverts need to shut the door to get some work done sometimes. I've been reading "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson, and he writes that some companies tried eliminating all cubicle walls and even assigned desks. Result: chaos. The idea was to encourage the flow of ideas--but IME, 99.9% of the chatter is going to be nothing but idle, distracting small talk. Better to have some private workstations and some public areas to build the puzzle pieces, and then put them together.