They are sometimes portrayed as polar opposites, one group preferring an evening with a good book, the other a night out at the pub. The introvert/extrovert categorisation, which is a feature of many personality assessments, is often described in simple binary terms. No introvert can enjoy social situations, extroverts never require a quiet moment.
I’ve always known myself to be an introvert, but it’s not that I dislike other people or am antisocial, as some perceptions of ‘introversion’ imply. I love spending time with people; I could never live alone because more than about five hours without another person’s company is enough to get me searching my phone book for someone to call. When I have a problem, I never try and solve it alone, instead seeking the opinions of many people; my close friends will have experienced the repetitive soul searching.
But there are aspects of the modern world which are bewildering for us introverts. The seeming impossibility of having a private life when so much as published online, the way in which digital communication demands immediate responses, are two examples. Although I love people, I do need time away from them, and when I need to concentrate on a difficult task, it’s not something I find I can always do in a group setting. It requires a combination of collaborative and solo working; everything in balance.
So many aspects of culture demand that we become ever louder to get ahead, that blagging and selling is best, that it’s not really about the content, it’s all about the pitch. Which is something that I find incredibly difficult as someone who believes that authenticity and honesty are two pretty important traits for us human beings.
When it comes to our working lives, Oliver James’ latest book Office Politics insists you have to join in and be loud or get left behind. And that’s why Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a bit of a break which goes against much of the ‘wisdom’ that we all practice in our day to day work, and which, in most cases, privileges the extrovert manner of working.
Using examples taken from a range of respected and repeated studies, Cain unpicks some of those ‘modern’ things that we all just do, and never really question:
Group creative sessions – Cain covers studies which have shown that, far from being the key to creative success, people actually have more and better quality ideas when they collate their ideas separately. It means that those who are naturally louder don’t override the good opinions of quieter people, and that people don’t avoid contributing ideas they think might sound stupid.
Open plan working and offices – the modern workplace is almost always open plan, separate offices being seen as out of date, hierarchical and obstructive to creativity and teamwork. Cain argues that smaller offices can actually improve concentration and productivity and that the endless drive towards getting everyone in rooms of tens if not hundreds of colleagues, might not be as productive as everyone thinks.
That to be a good leader you must be an extrovert – Cain flips this on its head, proposing that quieter leaders are sometimes better at encouraging their team members to flourish and use their talents, rather than seeking the glory themselves.
Whichever category you think you might fall into, it’s worth a look to see some of the understanding most of us take for granted, turned on its head.