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Quiet, Please: Unleashing 'The Power Of Introverts'

Originally published on January 31, 2012 12:02 am

From Gandhi to Joe DiMaggio to Mother Teresa to Bill Gates, introverts have done a lot of good work in the world. But being quiet, introverted or shy was sometimes looked at as a problem to overcome.

In the 1940s and '50s the message to most Americans was: Don't be shy. And in today's era of reality television, Twitter and widespread self-promotion, it seems that cultural mandate is in overdrive.

Susan Cain — who considers herself an introvert — has written a new book that tells the story of how introversion fell out of style. She talks with NPR's Audie Cornish about Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.


Interview Highlights

On the difference between introversion and shyness

"Introversion is really about having a preference for lower stimulation environments. So it's just a preference for quiet, for less noise, for less action. Whereas extroverts really crave more stimulation in order to feel at their best. ...

"Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that's really a misperception. Because actually it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers.

"Now, shyness, on the other hand, is about a fear of negative social judgment. So you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert."

On the culture of character vs. the culture of personality

"To some extent, we've always had an admiration for extroversion in our culture. But the extrovert ideal really came to play at the turn of the 20th century when we had the rise of big business. Suddenly, people were flocking to the cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations, at job interviews and on sales calls. ...

"We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority. But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.

"At the same time, we suddenly had the rise of movies and movie stars. Movie stars, of course, were the embodiment of what it meant to be a charismatic figure. So, part of people's fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them and bring with them to their own jobs."

On how today's workplaces are designed for extroverts

"It's quite a problem in the workplace today, because we have a workplace that is increasingly set up for maximum group interaction. More and more of our offices are set up as open-plan offices where there are no walls and there's very little privacy. ... The average amount of space per employee actually shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet today.

"Introverts are much less often groomed for leadership positions, even though there's really fascinating research out recently from Adam Grant at [The Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania] finding that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes when their employees are more proactive. They're more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extroverted leader might, almost unwittingly, be more dominant and be putting their own stamp on things, and so those good ideas never come to the fore."

On the value of working alone

"None of this is to say that it would be a good thing to get rid of teamwork and get rid of group work altogether. It's more just to say that we're at a point in our culture, and in our workplace culture, where we've gotten too lopsided. We tend to believe that all creativity and all productivity comes from the group, when in fact, there really is a benefit to solitude and to being able to go off and focus and put your head down."

On whether extroverts should be offended by 'Quiet'

"My criticism in the book is not of extroverts at all, but rather of the extrovert ideal. I actually find extroversion to be a really appealing personality style. ... Many of my best friends truly are extroverts, including my beloved husband."


Quiet Quiz: Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?
Excerpted from: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

To find out where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, answer each question True or False, choosing the one that applies to you more often than not.

1. ______ I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.

2. ______ I often prefer to express myself in writing.

3. ______ I enjoy solitude.

4. ______ I seem to care about wealth, fame, and status less than my peers.

5. ______ I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.

6. ______ People tell me that I'm a good listener.

7. ______ I'm not a big risk-taker.

8. ______ I enjoy work that allows me to "dive in" with few interruptions.

9. ______ I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.

10. ______ People describe me as "soft-spoken" or "mellow."

11. ______ I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.

12. ______ I dislike conflict.

13. ______ I do my best work on my own.

14. ______I tend to think before I speak.

15.______ I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.

16. ______I often let calls go through to voice mail.

17. ______If you had to choose, I'd prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.

18. ______ I don't enjoy multitasking.

19. ______ I can concentrate easily

20. ______ In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.

The more often you answered True, the more introverted you are. This is an informal quiz, not a scientifically validated personality test. The questions were formulated based on characteristics of introversion often accepted by contemporary researchers.

From Quiet by Susan Cain. Copyright 2012 by Susan Cain. Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. From Gandhi and Joe DiMaggio to Mother Teresa and Bill Gates, introverts have done a lot of great things in the world. But being quiet, introverted or shy was sometimes looked at as a problem to be overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: If you're what they call a shy guy, you're standing on the outside looking in. You might have something to contribute to their conversation, but nobody cares whether you do or not. There's a barrier, and you don't know how to begin breaking it down.

CORNISH: In the 1940s and '50s, the message to most Americans was, don't be shy. And in the era of reality television, Twitter and relentless self-promotion, it seems that cultural mandate is in overdrive.

A new book tells the story of how things came to be this way, and it's called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." The author is Susan Cain, and she joins us from the NPR studios in New York to talk more about it.

Welcome, Susan.

SUSAN CAIN: Thank you. It's such a pleasure to be here, Audie.

CORNISH: Well, we're happy to have you. And to start out - I think we should get this on the record - do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?

CAIN: Oh, I definitely consider myself an introvert, and that was part of the fuel for me to write the book.

CORNISH: And what's the difference between being an introvert versus being shy? I mean, what's your definition?

CAIN: So introversion is really about having a preference for lower-stimulation environments - so just a preference for quiet, for less noise, for less action - whereas extroverts really crave more stimulation in order to feel at their best. And what's important to understand about this is that many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial. And that's really a misperception because actually, it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have, you know, a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers.

Now shyness, on the other hand, is about a fear of negative social judgment. So you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert.

CORNISH: And in the book, you say that there's a spectrum. So if some people are listening and they think, well, I, too, like a glass of wine and a party. It's like we all have these tendencies.

CAIN: Yeah, yeah. That's an important thing. And, in fact, Carl Jung, the psychologist who first popularized these terms all the way back in the 1920s - even he said there's no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert, and he said such a man would be in a lunatic asylum.

CORNISH: That makes me worry because I took your test in the book and I'm like, 90 percent extroverted, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Now, you mentioned going back into the history. And I want to talk more about that because I was really fascinated by how you showed how this extrovert ideal - you call it - came to be. When did being introverted move from being a character trait to being looked at as a problem?

CAIN: Yeah. What I found is, to some extent, we've always had an admiration for extroversion in our culture. But the extrovert ideal really came to play at the turn of the 20th century, when we had the rise of big business. And so suddenly, people were flocking to the cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations - at job interviews and on sales calls.

And so at that moment in time, we moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. So during the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. You know, Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority.

But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly, what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic. And then at the same time, we suddenly had the rise of movies and movie stars. And movie stars, of course, were the embodiment of what it meant to be a charismatic figure. And so part of people's fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them, and bring with them to their own jobs.

CORNISH: Now, how does this thinking affect the workplace today?

CAIN: Well, you know, I would say it's quite a problem in the workplace today because we have a workplace that is increasingly set up for maximum group interaction. More and more of our offices are set up as open-plan offices, where there are no walls and there's very little privacy. And in fact, the average amount of space per employee actually shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s, to 200 square feet today.

And also, introverts are much less often groomed for leadership positions, even though there's really fascinating research out - recently, from Adam Grant at Wharton - finding that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes. When their employees are more proactive, they're more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extroverted leader might almost unwittingly be more dominant and be putting their own stamp on things, and so those good ideas never come to the fore.

CORNISH: Of course, getting to that theory of like, the loudest ideas aren't necessarily the best ideas.

CAIN: Right, right.

CORNISH: Except in brainstorming sessions, right? It sounds like some of these team- building things, in a way, don't stamp out good ideas, but certainly make it hard for those of us who aren't as loud.

CAIN: Yeah. And none of this is to say that it would be a good thing to get rid of teamwork and to get rid of group work altogether. It's more just to say that we are at a point in our culture and in our workplace culture, where we've gotten too lopsided. And we tend to believe that all creativity and all productivity comes from the group when in fact, there really is a benefit to solitude, and to being able to kind of go off and focus and put your head down.

CORNISH: Susan, I have to admit, as I read the book more and more, I became more and more offended as an extrovert. I felt like, wait a second. I listen to people in meetings. You know, I, like, felt sort of sheepish.

CAIN: Oh, gosh. Well, you know, that's so not the intention. My criticism in the book is not of extroverts at all, but rather the extrovert ideal. I actually find extroversion to be a really appealing personality style. And this sounds like a funny thing, but many of my best friends truly are extroverts, including my beloved husband.

CORNISH: All my best friends are extroverts. OK. Well, I believe you, and I had a great time talking with you, so thanks so much.

CAIN: Thank you, Audie. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: That's Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." And if all this talk has you thinking, who am I? Introvert, extrovert, ambivert – yes, that's really a thing. Well, you can take Susan Cain's quiz at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.