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Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxemburg

03/31/2013

Quiet

A couple of years ago we did one of those psychometric tests at work. I think it’s called Myers-Briggs. Or that could be a comet. Those of you who have worked in an office for any length of time will doubtless be familiar with the set-up. You answer a series of multiple choice questions about your behaviour and how you perceive the world, the results are interpreted and you are placed somewhere on the introvert-extrovert personality spectrum.

I tend to get pigeon-holed somewhere between a Cistercian monk and one of those blokes who goes bananas with a shotgun in a US shopping mall. You know when the neighbours are interviewed afterwards and it’s always “oh, he was very quiet, never really saw him that much, always kept himself to himself”.

Anyway, this test was no different; once again, firmly in the introvert camp. But what happened afterwards was a little unexpected as we each discussed our results with a management consultant brought in to run the test. Most of the hour-long discussion about my results centred on how I should consider moving myself more towards the extrovert end of the scale if I wished to “get ahead” in my job. It rankled with me for some time afterwards and left me analysing (as I’m prone to do) whether I’m cut out to do the job that I’m doing and if, after two decades, I’m actually any good at it.

In many respects I’m a stereotypical introvert. From school reports sprinkled with words like “quiet” and “conscientious”, through painfully shy teenage years to the awkwardness of many office meetings – quietness has been, and still is, a feature of my life.

I’m hopeless at small talk and “banter”. I don’t know anyone who’s worse at it. You definitely don’t want to get stranded with me at a party. I’ll probably end up boring on about politics or some subtitled European film that you’ve never heard of. Instead, you could be chatting to them over there about that dance troupe who won Britain’s Got Talent a few years back. And at least they look like they’re having a good time. I’m much more comfortable having a one to one conversation with someone than a group discussion. Particularly if it’s an in-depth discussion of a subject that I’m passionate about.

I’m not really one for blowing my own trumpet. In fact, it would probably help if I got the thing out of the cupboard first and took it out of its case. You certainly wouldn’t describe me as a “can-do” or “go-to” person. Or any other odd combination of monosyllabic words for that matter.

I prefer expressing myself in writing (hence the reason I’m tapping away on this keyboard now) and tend to think (perhaps too much) before I speak. And I’ve often been known to nip into a pub for a quiet one before a night out with friends.

It’s therefore been with great interest that I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. She reflects on how, in the western world, we increasingly value the skills of extroverts over those of their introverted colleagues. The ability to speak well and sound knowledgeable about something, even when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, is prized. Sitting back and calmly reflecting on events before voicing an opinion is often perceived as a weakness in a society that increasingly values people who can think on their feet.

From Nike urging us to “just do it” to the surfeit of reality television shows, the message is clear; we live in an extrovert world. Personality is all the rage. We expect our celebrities, musicians and sports stars to ooze it. A nice smile and a few words go a long way. We want cheeky chappy, cheerful individuals who you can take home and they’ll make your mum laugh. Not one of those serious types who probably won’t say boo to a goose.

People in the public eye who are even slightly uneasy in front of the television cameras are often described as having no personality. Which seems a bit bizarre given that we all have our own personality. Take Andy Murray for instance. It’s clear that he’s more than a little uncomfortable in front of a camera but anyone familiar with his prodigious output on Twitter will be aware of a thoughtful and often very amusing individual.

Susan Cain suggests that one of the main reasons for the greater focus on extroverts has been the urbanisation of western society over the last century and a half. When most people lived in small, often rural, communities and didn’t travel very far, people tended to know each other and valued characteristics such as honesty, kindness and respect. As people have migrated to large cities the folk who we do business with on a daily basis are largely unknown to us and thus there is a need to impress and be more outgoing in order to stand out from the crowd. Job interviews are a good example of this. A standard question such as “tell us a bit about yourself” encourages interviewees to “sell” themselves often at the expense of honesty and integrity.

Quiet dispels many of the myths that have grown up around the relationship between introverts and extroverts. Most notably that being an introvert should be seen as a weakness. Far from it, the book argues. Introverts often make better leaders as they listen to others and may be better placed to spot weaknesses in the arguments of others. And introverts are certainly no less courageous than their more outgoing colleagues. There are many examples through history of courageous individuals who have also been introverts such as Rosa Parks and Gandhi. The section on Eleanor Roosevelt’s quiet influence on her president husband is particularly revealing.

The book also challenges some of the modern wisdom about the best ways of working. It suggests that open plan offices are not good for everyone and certainly not more productive. And that working in teams is not always best, particularly where creativity is a priority. Some people are better working alone (there is nothing wrong with this) and brainstorming is often not an effective way of generating original ideas. Some of you will probably be reading this on one of those new fangled smartphones. It may surprise you to learn that the technology behind the phone wasn’t created on some happy clappy team building away day but by the painstaking efforts of computer nerds working alone.

Workplaces that value creativity should get individuals to think about things on their own first and also consider collecting views electronically. We live in a society that allows us to express ourselves in a multitude of different ways. Yet, too often when someone is described as having “good communication skills” it tends to mean that they’re good at talking but not necessarily good at listening or writing. There was a recent discussion on Newsnight about the reaction of the NHS to the recent Francis Report. The three participants, including a doctor and a nurse, were agreed on one thing; that those who work in the health service must listen more, to patients and to their colleagues. As a health service employee for more than twenty years, I agree wholeheartedly with this. But in many respects we are merely reaping what we’ve sown in our pursuit of the “extrovert ideal” when recruiting to managerial posts. I’ve seen too many meetings and conversations where people have simply talked over one another, or raised their voice, to get their point across. It’s not going to be easy to persuade people to listen more.

I’m not sure how I’d describe my own communication skills. On the plus side, hand me a piece of paper and a pen and I’m reasonably alright at stringing a few sentences together on a particular subject. But put me in a group of people discussing the same topic and the chances are that I’ll be one of the worst performers. It’s a scenario perhaps best summed up by one of my old university tutors who once scribbled at the bottom of one of my essays something along the lines of “if you’re capable of writing as good as this, why are you so quiet in tutorials?” But imagine someone who performed well in group situations being asked why they seemed unable to compose an intelligible email that doesn’t lapse into jargon? It tends not to happen. The “ideal” is for people to be more extroverted not more introverted.

Quiet is a book that will hopefully change the way that society views its quieter members. Somewhere between a third and a half of us are introverts. That’s a lot of people. Yet this is the first time I’ve read something that projects introversion in a positive light. Too often the word introvert has negative connotations. Rather than trying to get introverts to become more outgoing, Quiet urges us to “make the most of introverts’ strengths – these are the people who can help you think deeply, strategise, solve complex problems and spot canaries in your coal mine”. The book doesn’t champion the cause of introverts over extroverts but merely asks us, in schools, workplaces and at home, to value the qualities of everyone not just those who make the most noise. At last, it’s refreshing to read someone’s views on personality that doesn’t leave me feeling like a bit of a weirdo.

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From → Culture, Politics

2 Comments
  1. Thanks for this! I’m not only a dyed in the wool, card carrying introvert, but a neurotic one at that, according to an assessment done many years back, all of which was definitely conveyed to me with a ‘get help now’ tag… Will get a copy of this book asap!

    • Thanks Catherine. Yes, definitely give it a go, it’s a wonderful book that will hopefully change the way that many of us view introverts. Enjoy. Let me know what you make of it.

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