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The Power (and Persecution) of Introverts

Susan Cain recently wrote a book titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts and spoke to Scientific American’s Gareth Cook about the challenges and misperceptions facing introverts in our society.

Cook: You argue that our culture has an extroversion bias. Can you explain what you mean?
Cain: In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ​“putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.

In my book, I travel the country — from a Tony Robbins seminar to Harvard Business School to Rick Warren’s powerful Saddleback Church — shining a light on the bias against introversion. One of the most poignant moments was when an evangelical pastor I met at Saddleback confided his shame that ​“God is not pleased” with him because he likes spending time alone.

Cook: How does this cultural inclination affect introverts?

Cain: Many introverts feel there’s something wrong with them, and try to pass as extroverts. But whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way. You especially lose a sense of how to spend your time. Introverts are constantly going to parties and such when they’d really prefer to be home reading, studying, inventing, meditating, designing, thinking, cooking…or any number of other quiet and worthwhile activities.

According to the latest research, one third to one half of us are introverts — that’s one out of every two or three people you know. But you’d never guess that, right? That’s because introverts learn from an early age to act like pretend-extroverts.

I can’t quantify this, but it feels like there’s something of a martyr complex developing among my fellow introverts as of late. Is it a good thing to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of various personality types? Of course. But I’ve come across several books and articles in the last year or so singing the praises of introverts while implying that we’re this sort of persecuted minority, or ​“second-class citizens,” as Cain puts it. And frankly, it strikes me as a little smug and pretentious. (Or maybe, to quote Cain, I have ​“such a strong inner life” that I’m perfectly content to do my own thing without really caring about what the rest of society thinks.)

That being said, I’m with Cain when it comes to groupwork and brainstorming, both of which I find very tedious and distasteful.


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