While I was in America I started reading a book called Quiet by Susan Cain which had been left on the bedside table of the apartment in which I was staying. Although I didn’t finish the book before I left, I found some of what I did manage to read to be quite a revelation. Cain argues that the world favours extroverts and that the classroom and workplace environment is geared towards those who function well in groups. She also argues that instead of thinking that there is something “wrong” with those of us who prefer to work on our own and be quietly reflective, the world should value the role of introverts.
In fact, I have always felt uncomfortable in large groups; they often make me feel like I’m “on the outside looking in”. I remember when I was working in the ngo sector in the early 80’s, group work was the in-thing. Those who liked the sound of their own voices tended to dominate and the ideas of the quiet ones were mostly overlooked. It also used to drive me crazy when the most idiotic comments made by the most verbose were earnestly received by the group and a simple decision could take an entire day to make. Not only that but when we were running workshops, we used to play icebreakers which always left me feeling totally distraught, especially when you had to say something nice about someone you didn’t know from a bar of soap. I just didn’t have the skills to do that!
Once I was attending a week long, interactive training programme in Cape Town which ended with an activity where everyone had a piece of paper taped to their backs. All the participants had to write something about each other on the piece of paper. I was beside myself for two reasons: I could not think of anything to say about any of the other participants and I was terrified that no-one would make a positive comment about me! Peter and our friend Clive were attending a Carnegie Conference on Poverty at UCT at the same time and came to pick me up early. I was so relieved to see them and felt that they had rescued me from a fate worse than death. They took me to listen to Jazz at Kalk Bay and were most consolatory as I cried into my drink and bemoaned the fact that I was a horrible person and no-one liked me!
If only I had known then that it is common for introverts to:
- find small talk incredibly awkward,
- often feel alone in a crowd,
- feel like a phony when it comes to networking,
- find mingling with strangers difficult, and
- feel drained by social interaction.
Yay, I’m normal after all (although the jury may still be out on that)!
When I got home from the States I did some follow up research on Susan Cain and came across her Ted Talk on the power of introverts which I found very interesting. For most of my life I have believed that there was something wrong with me because I found it so difficult to do what others seemed to accomplish so easily, like mingling at a party and talking to strangers. It was good to discover that not only are there a lot of people like me but, according to Cain, we should be as highly valued as extroverts. And since I made this discovery I have become much less self-critical of my social ineptness, which is quite liberating. What I have Susan Cain to thank for is that I now feel more comfortable being me in situations where previously I would have felt that I had to put on an act of some sort.
My surfing of the net also turned up this interesting review of her book by Jon Ronson (author of The Psychopath Test).
And then, I got sidetracked (as one does on the internet) and listened to Ronson’s very entertaining Ted Talk on the gray areas between crazy and sane. It has nothing to do with introverts / extroverts but I thought it fitted in here nonetheless. Perhaps it’s a caution against labelling people too specifically. As much as I identify with introvert characteristics, I know that I have extrovert characteristics too. There’s a fine line between being determined by labels and being liberated by them. Fortunately for me Susan Cain’s explanations of what I considered to be my foibles released me from years of self criticism, rather than defined me.