Respect for the Introvert, Please!

July 28, 2016
America is known as a nation of extroverts.  Surrounded by older countries with cultures based on reserve and tradition, we celebrate our exuberant, gregarious, national character and do our best to perpetuate the image.  But, amidst the ballyhoo and high-fiving, we have to ask ourselves: are we really all extroverts?  If we’re not, why are we pretending to be?
The answers, according to Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, may surprise you.  The fact is, approximately half of this country’s population have introvert personalities.  These are the people who prefer the company of a few friends to a crowd of people, who aren’t anxious to dominate every conversation, who thrive on solitude and silence.  Unfortunately, those needs are often ignored by a culture who values the socially adept, team-player and distrusts the standoffish loner. Ms. Cain makes the argument that not only does this half of society deserve more respect, but that these quiet people may be the stronger, more creative individuals in our population and, on balance, the best leaders.
What makes one person the life of the party with the next is a little withdrawn?  Science isn’t sure but the pattern seems to set in early.  Studies done on infants measured how each child responded when introduced to new things in its environment.  Some barely reacted at all to the unfamiliar objects while others waved their arms and yelled.  The low-reactors tended to develop into relaxed, forthright personalities while the high-reactors became more sensitive, thoughtful children who were more easily overwhelmed by stimuli. The high-reactors became introverts and often shamed because they aren’t part of the group.
Now the thing about introverts is, they like to go off in a corner and consider things.  They’re keen puzzle and problem-solvers. Introverts become our great artists and thinkers, engineers, researchers, visionaries and statesmen.  Because they don’t like the limelight, few introverts take leadership positions but those that do encounter a greater rate of success because they are willing to listen to their subordinates and focus on making their team (instead of them) a success.  So why don’t we listen to the quiet ones.
One exercise Ms. Cain mention showed the more aggressive speaker can actually change a listener’s perception.  A group of people undergoing MRIs were answering questions correctly until an actor in the group deliberately started shouting the wrong answers.  Those that agreed with the incorrect answers had brain activity that showed their perception of the problem changed.  The few that held on to correct answers had different patterns and a change in the amygdala that showed resisting the crowd created a level of fear.  A study like this explains how a company – or country – can fall into a course of action that, in hindsight, is obviously wrong.  The louder, more aggressive speaker convinces many their initial conclusions are wrong and the remainder are afraid to speak up.  
This is the danger of “the Culture of Personality”, when we gravitate to leaders and role models based on their appeal to our emotions.  These are charismatic, gregarious, extroverted people with oratorical skills to sway the masses but that doesn’t mean they have the necessary character or skills to improve our world. Instead, we should respect our introverts, give them the freedom to be who they are and listen when one of them has something to say.  The wrapping on their gifts may be less flashy but the treasures they bring are worth more.

If you are interested in more information about this topic, you can hear the author’s TED talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts?language=en#t-757382

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