A friend introduced me to the American lecturer and writer, Susan Cain and her consistent work on promoting the power of introverts in a world, which has preconceived and inflexible standards by which an individual’s personality and traits are judged. I watched her popular TED Talk, albeit very late (the video had, by that time, more than a million views), in which she argues about the default ways in which the culture, its structures, and its individuals are prompted and rewarded to be social and outgoing. Today, Susan Cain is known to the world as a Quiet Revolutionary and her work is available to individuals, schools, and organizations through the website, Quiet Revolution: Unlocking the Power of Introverts.
At the time, when I watched Cain’s TED Talk, I already considered myself an ambivert. I had had the consciousness to observe that my personality traits included preferring a quieter environment and a personal space but that I thrived equally well (at least, on most occasions) in small groups and networks. I also knew that I had some of the skills of, what Malcolm Gladwell calls a connector. In his best seller, The Tipping Point, Gladwell defines a connecter as someone who knows many people and takes pleasure in connecting them through commonalities that s/he observes in them. Gladwell writes on his website,
“College students don’t have as wide a circle of acquaintances as people in their 40’s. It makes sense that between the age of 20 and 40 the number of people you know should roughly double, and that upper-income professionals should know more people than lower-income immigrants.”
It is essential to understand this research and the central role that connectors play to create and cause social epidemics. But, it was Cain’s research and exceedingly convincing approach to the subject of introversion as different from shyness, anti-social behaviour, and non-friendliness that dominated my thoughts for a while. I was impressed, affected positively, and emotionally moved to not just increase my knowledge but also promote the discussion in my own way. My first class with sophomore students on psychology included a discussion on personality traits, an assignment to write a 750-word essay on the personality that they identified with, and of course, to read Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
I bought my own copy of the book at an airport retail outlet to read while flying back to Delhi after a business trip. The book has a simple white front, minimalist design, and with the following reviews on the back cover. I mention them here especially because they are written by women, who are prominent in their respective fields, and for the simple content of their reviews.
‘Will make quiet people see themselves in a whole new light’ – Naomi Wolf
‘Quiet’s central thesis is fresh and important. Perhaps it is time we all stopped to listen to the still, small voice of calm’ – Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times
When I took the personality test offered on the Quiet Revolution website in 2015, my results confirmed what I had already known—I was an ambivert. According to the website, I was someone who fell,
“…smack in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. In many ways, ambiverts have the best of both worlds, able to tap into the strengths of both introverts and extroverts as needed.”
What it meant was that in specific situations, including personal and professional, I sought to employ my learned and acquired skills that corroborated my existence and performance in that situation. The more important revelation, which I learned was that much similar to gender, the personality of an individual was fluid, altering, and dynamic. What Cain was saying, choosing Jerry Kagan’s framework, and thus, offering an alternative to the nature-nurture debate was that an individual’s personality was shaped and emboldened in the environment that s/he grows in, but that an individual’s temperament continuously impels them to participate in activities that match their temperament best, thus building their personality as adults. Cain herself writes it better, while offering substantial research,
“Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to break the sound barrier) could step down from the belly of the bomber into the rocketship and push the button not because he was born with that difference between him and me, but because for the previous thirty years his temperament impelled him to work his way up from climbing trees through increasing degrees of danger and excitement.”
As a child until the elementary school level, I displayed a personality that included traits such as enjoying social networks, being outgoing, and showing a curiosity to try new things. I was also adamant, impulsive, and used my body to its potential, climbing, falling down, but getting up again to move towards the next adventure. I had friends, both at school and back home, I was invited to and attended birthday parties, enjoyed the status of a consistent academic performer, and was often chided by my teachers for talking while the class was in session. In relatively new social situations, after the initial awkwardness subsided, I would loosen up and make friends. The pictures, from these years, show me often frozen in frame, staring at the camera person, without fear, and in one, even angry, but never with a frown.
This changed when I entered my puberty years and throughout adolescence. I was not properly educated about menstruation or the subsequent development of my body, along with the multilateral emotions that I felt as a teen about the opposite sex or my own individuality. At the same time, my family moved owing to my father’s transfer, to a new city, which had social systems, traditions, and requirements that were alien and unclear. From a working class population, we had suddenly shifted to the millennium city, which was already boasting and encashing upon its proximity to the national capital. In this new environment, I had the challenge of finding my identity, now as a terrified newcomer, on various levels – personal and public – while living inside the framework of marital discord between my parents. Perhaps, not for the first time, but certainly devastatingly I realized that I was treated as an outcast and at times, was one, because of the colour of my skin. Unfortunately, this behavioural prejudice was demonstrated not just by children, but within this culture, by adults as well (at times, jokingly).
During these years, I lost my rights to belong to groups, and once I felt that I was not necessarily welcome or needed, I isolated myself further. The impacts, my personal and social reality had on my esteem were long-lasting and for a long period, irreparable. I lost the status of being an academic performer, the status, now more commonly filled by students belonging to the upper middle-class social systems. My participation in extracurricular activities decreased and stopped completely after a while, I barely spoke in the classroom or on stage. It is important for me to highlight here that even against the desire and my earlier upbringing to belong to social groups, I could not, for the lack of a better term, fit. There were little grounds on which I was similar to my classmates. I belonged to a socially and economically lower status (the colour of my skin imposing this status) and had almost no special talents to compensate for my conditions (which my academic performance once conferred). I was not useful and hence, I was invisible. For the most part, throughout my high school, I stayed invisible, and quiet.
Cain, in her TED talk and in her book, argues about the culture which has designed and developed certain standard ideals and conditions, which trains and grooms people towards a certain personality. She calls this the Culture of Personality, which opposed to the Culture of Character values magnetism, energy, dominance, force, the power to stun, and popularity. According to her, and I believe this with conviction now that our education systems, our media, and our social systems, are designed to nurture and evolve people with extroverted personality traits. This means, in our schools and colleges, we begin to grade students on their participation in groups, in the class, in the extracurricular activities, and eventually, as an individual. While these activities allow the more outgoing students to perform better and excel, they subvert the skills and gifts that introverts and ambiverts (who identify more with introversion) have to offer to their peers and to the society.
In a chapter, exclusively dedicated to raising quiet kids, Cain offers a useful tip to teachers, which provides us an insight into how introverts (and ambiverts) function in a world, which is too distracted to see them. She writes,
“Introverts [and ambiverts] often have one or two deep interests that are not necessarily shared by their peers. Sometimes they’re made to feel freaky for the force of these passions, when in fact studies show that this sort of intensity is a prerequisite to talent development. Praise these kids for their interests, encourage them, and help them find like-minded friends, if not in the classroom, then outside it.”
I cannot emphasize this enough but, the absence of this encouragement, if not in the classroom, then outside it, can make an immense difference in an individual’s life, especially an introvert’s/ an ambivert’s. In my case, this lack of a mature, observing individual or system showed as stress, low academic performance, bruxism, lack of self-esteem, inability to recover from trauma, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety, depression, inability to create and maintain boundaries, inability to express, subversion of hobbies/interests, denial of social identities, bitterness, isolation from the world and worse still, distortion of identity.
Although, I have tried to overcome some of these challenges, by referring to literature such as that of Cain’s and through spirituality, some of this conditioning often reappears, as in my case, in my professional life. In my last position, I found it difficult to offer suggestions, in some cases, because I didn’t have them, but more often because I couldn’t keep up with the requirements of the work culture. The fear of evaluation, of appearing stupid or less informed, was ever present and often prevented me from speaking in meetings, internal and with clients. I also struggled with, what psychologists call production blocking—“only one person can talk or produce an idea at once, while the other members are forced to sit passively.” I have to mention it here that, production blocking, is a more common phenomena, well known to women in all settings, but my struggles at the workplace involved not being able to manage this and find a way to offer my best. The extrovert-culture at my workplace didn’t have the time or the resources to consider the needs of individuals who needed private space, preparation, time, and much-needed rejuvenation, which by default, made me an underperformer. Eventually, I quit the organization, not only because I wasn’t professionally fit for the position, but also because I wasn’t temperamentally fit for its culture.
In my new professional role as a lecturer, I am required to meet and engage with students of all personality types. Some students in my class participate more consistently and often while some prefer to stay quiet, listen, and develop an understanding of what is happening. Even though, I understand both realities from having lived them, I find it hard not to look down upon the quieter ones—a very common way we are conditioned with an inclination to protect them, nurture them, and also encourage them towards the Extrovert-Ideal. Research shows that even in the US, which is considered to lead the celebration of personality,
“…one third to one half of Americans are introverts—in other words, one out of every two or three people you know… If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts… It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual—the kind who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there.’”
I would not be surprised, if research reveals similar results in India—its multi-cultural and stronger ethnic-identities, offer the very ground to develop different personalities in different regions and sub-cultures. Increasingly, one’s position on the social stratum dictates whether the person will have access to resources that will enable her/him to develop their full personhood, even if these resources amount to fundamental conditions for development. This differentiated access is one of the many reasons, why I believe in technology and communication-its free or cheap access, free online and offline books and journals, and films, sometimes, including pirated copies (censorship in the film industry and mass media is a political activity). In my case, it was access to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which helped putting into context what was happening to me and with me.
It was not until my late twenties that I could own my quietness and create conditions which nurtured me on the inside. Having received the “sober, shy, and need to participate in extracurricular activities” as a necessary condition to be valued throughout my high school, I understand the freedom that comes from being your own self. I am fortunate today to have meaningful and fulfilling friendships with introverts, ambiverts and extroverts, without having to compromise, feel lesser than, and be put down for not speaking enough. The process to overcome (and unlearn) my conditioning is ongoing, but I now find hope and meaning to exist and thrive.
Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights delineates,
“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
I recall the image of Eleanor Roosevelt (one of my sheroes) holding the Declaration, now, with the information that she was an introvert, quoting Cain, “FDR, elected at the start of the Depression, is remembered for his compassion. But it was Eleanor who made sure he knew how suffering Americans felt.” I believe in the Declaration with conviction that every human deserves this equal chance to express themselves in their full personhood, and if possible, would advocate for these rights, in my own small way for the rest of my active years. And, for this very reason, I believe it is the right of my students to remain quiet during class or share their opinions out loud.
We need them both.