“'Respect for individual human personality has with us reached its lowest point,' observed one intellectual in 1921, 'and it is delightfully ironical that no nation is so constantly talking about personality as we are. We actually have schools for ‘self-expression’ and ‘self-development,’ although we seem usually to mean the expression and development of the personality of a successful real estate agent'” (Cain).
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain explores the concept of the “extrovert ideal” that is so deeply woven in American culture, and, serving as the main theme and point of contrast, the concept of introversion. She highlights the alienation that introverts sometimes feel living in a world (seemingly) full of the chatty, gregarious, real-estate-agent types. The introvert, as defined by Cain’s book, is “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned,” whereas “this person’s opposite number” is defined as the quintessential “‘man of action’ who is ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight."
Quiet also digs into the importance of authenticity: “If you’re a sensitive sort,” Cain says, “then you may be in the habit of pretending to be more of a politician and less cautious or single-mindedly focused than you actually are.” It’s within the pages of Quiet that Cain illustrates why introverts don’t need to—and shouldn’t—turn to this falsely extroverted façade.
This technique of fake extroversion resonated with me, because as a (younger) teenager, faking it is exactly what I did. “Adolescence is the great stumbling place, the dark and tangled thicket of low self-esteem and social unease,” Cain explains. “In middle and high school, the main currency is vivacity and gregariousness; attributes like depth and sensitivity don’t count for much.” Amen.
I began to feel this unexplainable pressure to be extroverted at my second high school. As a new student in a completely brand new school, I was faced with an overabundance of extracurricular activities to join, each with nearly empty sign-up sheets. ASB, class council, charity clubs, spirit clubs, sports—I felt like I needed to do everything if I was going to make friends, be liked, be successful, or get into college. I traded my lifelong (and rather solitary) sport of swimming for the cheerleading squad. I became a club president. I spent my lunches in the thick of the cafeteria, surrounded by girlish shrieks and gossip and fistfights. And while some of those experiences pushed me out of my comfort zone for the better, I can’t help but look back on my (second) high school experience and wish I had followed my intuition, passions, and curiosities more truthfully. I wish I had spent my lunchtimes painting in the art building or researching in the library. I wish I had made more friends who liked literature or cartoons or classical music. I wish I had felt blissfully unaware of the pressure to date, go to parties, be seen and be heard, join everything, and, for lack of a better word, brand myself.
“...Salesmanship governs even the most neutral interactions...every encounter is a high-stakes game in which we win or lose the other person’s favor. It urges us to meet social fear in as extroverted a manner as possible. We must be vibrant and confident, we must not seem hesitant, we must smile so that our interlocutors will smile upon us. Taking these steps will make us feel good—and the better we feel, the better we can sell ourselves” (Cain).
The same pressure—this “salesmanship”—followed me to college. I joined a sorority. I took fashion classes. I lived in the “good” dorm (read: rowdy). The pressure was more immense in college; living in the dorms, it’s highly noticeable if you, for example, choose to stay in on a Thursday or Friday night, rather than dress up and “go out.”
Now that I’m a few years older, I’ve realized that it’s much more satisfying to delight in my introversion rather than fight it. That’s what I had been doing—fighting it, hiding it, and trying to change it to fit in. Attending parties wasn’t going to make me like them any more. Avoiding the library wasn’t going to make me miss it any less.
As Cain says, “Free will can take us far, suggests Dr. Schwartz’s research, but it cannot carry us infinitely beyond our genetic limits. Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton, no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer.”
P.S.: In the second part of this post (coming in the near future), I want to discuss the power and importance of solitude for introverts and how said solitude can benefit the creative and intellectual process.