Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Quiet People

In the previous post I described a hypothetical situation in which Jennifer, a marine biologist in her first job, has run into a problem.  Her boss has expressed his concern over her lack of participation in meetings and for not being a "team player".  Jennifer is stunned because she is simply a quiet person who does not say the first thing that pops into her head, unlike her coworkers who blather on about anything and everything, often nonsense.  The situation Jennifer finds herself in is not uncommon for people who are naturally quiet, introspective, and cautious in their interactions with other people.

I just finished reading Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  According to Cain, there are many people, perhaps as much as half the population (the data are not clear on this), who are introverts. Introverts are people who prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, which is different from shy people who fear negative judgement (although a person may be both an introvert and shy).  Such people often experience bias in a world that seems to have embraced the idea that people should work in teams and without office walls...and that those who don't enthusiastically participate are flawed.  She makes the case that many schools and workplaces, particularly in the US, increasingly emphasize "groupthink" and idealize the gregarious, verbally confident person.  People who are naturally quiet and contemplative and prefer solitude to work out their ideas are considered to be less than ideal or even maladjusted.

Prior to Susan Cain's book, there was an essay I read many years ago in "The Best American Science and Nature Writing" (2004) called Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch. He describes introverts as people who need lots of time alone. He quite nicely captures their reluctance to go to parties, awkwardness (and aversion to) "small talk" and "pleasantries", and the appearance of being aloof or "too serious" (often untrue). Rauch describes himself as an introvert, albeit one with good social skills.  He can fake it....just as many introverts can.  He loves long, intimate, intellectual conversations.  Extroverts, on the other hand, seem to revel in superficial banter.  Not that there's anything wrong with that....it's just a different preference and way of interacting with other people.

Rauch asks the question, "Are introverts misunderstood?" His answer: "Wildly."  Introverts keep their thoughts to themselves mostly, whereas extroverts are "open books".  They do their thinking out loud, voicing every thought that pops into their heads.  The introvert, on the other hand, is mentally sorting through a lot of material and perhaps will share what they decide is most relevant and insightful, leaving the less clear or premature ideas unspoken.  It's not that introverts are hiding anything; they just don't see the point in spewing their thoughts out, unformed and messy, in a constant deluge.  The upshot is that extroverts have no clue as to what introversion is all about.  They come to various incorrect conclusions about introverts because their understanding is based on superficialities (and introverts don't help by being inscrutable most of the time).

Extroverts, by being overly verbal and apparently open with their thoughts, give the impression that they are holding nothing back. The observer finds this behavior to be guileless, genuine, straightforward, truthful, and open. I don't think this is necessarily an accurate assessment (more about this later), but this is the typical impression an extrovert conveys.  So it's no surprise that the introvert's behavior is seen as being cool, standoffish, judgmental, secretive, solitary, or bashful.  Such an impression may stimulate in the observer feelings of being judged, excluded, or dismissed.  They become uncomfortable, wondering what this quiet person is really thinking.  Is she thinking I'm stupid, incompetent, or unworthy? Why doesn't she say what's she's thinking? It must be bad...that's the only reason someone would keep quiet for so long....

You can see how quickly people can jump to incorrect conclusions when they do not understand what underlies other people's behavior.  The fact that perhaps half of the human population is misreading the other half is cause for concern.

Rauch asks, "Are introverts oppressed?" His answer is yes, undoubtedly.  His thesis is that extroverts dominate our modern society (at least in the US), and their influence has gradually led to the adoption of extroversion as the ideal. Extroverts, who prevail in social life, politics, and business, have ultimately set our social expectations of what's acceptable and what's not. The outcome of this celebration of extroversion is bias against people who are naturally introverted.  More troubling is the move to "socialize" introverts; to force them to change their behavior, either through direct pressure to attain extrovert skills or indirectly through social pressure to conform to the extrovert ideal (the party animal).  This argument is also made by Cain in her book, except she goes into much greater detail, backed up by extensive research into the topic.

An interesting observation made in Rauch's essay is the distinction between how introverted men and women are judged.  Often, the male introvert is characterized as the "strong, silent type".  Think Gary Cooper in Frank Capra's classic, Meet John Doe.  He's quiet, but still admired for being strong-willed and talking only when he has something of substance to say.  Quiet women lack such an alternative persona; they are more likely viewed as being haughty, withdrawn, or shy.  Never in a positive light.  When I googled "strong, silent type and women", I did not find examples of female Gary Coopers.  Instead, I found links to descriptions of why women prefer the strong, silent type of man.

So we have Jennifer, who is a strong, smart, quiet woman with good ideas and excellent skills.  Yet she is not only undervalued by her boss and coworkers, she is being pressured to change her inherent nature.  In the next post, I'll examine what is wrong with this belief that Jennifer and other introverts need to change and become "team players" and what she can do to protect herself from such misguided thinking.

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