Tag Archives: Authors

The I or the E – is it really as simple as that?

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.

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Internet access – it’s all a load of fuss about nothing

Be honest, which household gadget could you live without? Would there be any impact upon your day to day life if you had no laptop? What about your phone or your vacuum cleaner?

When my two friends and I were choosing a flat to live in just after university, having a washing machine wasn’t one of the priorities. ‘The launderette’s just round the corner,’ we reasoned, when weeks later we were hand washing most of our clothes in the bathroom sink. The lady who ran the launderette was rather strict and we were a bit scared of her; she advised us on drying times for different clothing types and that was all a bit much.  ‘Hand washing saves money and water, too,’ we admirably reasoned.

Whatever their gadget of choice, I’m fairly sure that most people I know would rather lose quite a few household mod cons than lose their internet connection.  To work, communicate, find out information and keep ourselves entertained most of us rely on the internet on a daily basis.

Even the Lords are talking about its importance. A communications committee has raised concerns that the government’s obsession with rolling out speedy broadband overlooks those parts of the country which have little or no coverage at all.

Well, if you ask Ha-Joon Chang, the author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, those people in remote parts of Cumbria who each evening struggle to stream yesterday’s episode of Eastenders in a valiant attempt to keep in touch with what’s happening in the outside world don’t have it that bad after all.

I’m reading Chang’s book at the moment and really like the way that he challenges aspects of free-market capitalism which we don’t really question that much. I don’t always agree with him, but it’s refreshing to read a viewpoint which strays from the norm.

One of his chapters is: ‘The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’.

He argues, first of all, that the development of internet-based communications hasn’t had as much impact on humankind as the invention of the telegram did. Chang uses the example of sending a 300 word message across the Atlantic. Sending a fax would take 10 seconds and an email two seconds. The invention of the telegraph, on the other hand, reduced the travel time of a message from the steamship’s best attempt, two weeks, to just eight minutes.

More interesting though, and linking to my (brilliant) anecdote about washing machines, is the social change which Chang attributes to the invention of the washing machine.

The time saved thanks to washing machines, according to Chang, has transformed the way that women live by enabling them to enter the labour market (as opposed to washing and ironing clothes by hand and the other lengthy domestic chores due to the lack of electrical appliances). It also meant that those women who were working were increasingly employed in non-domestic roles.

Brilliantly, this: ‘has definitely raised the status of women at home and in society, thus also reducing preference for male children and increasing investment in female education.’

Even better: ‘Even those educated women who choose to stay at home with their children [now] have higher status in the home, as they can make credible threats that they can support themselves should they choose to leave their partners.’

Leaving to one side the, ahem, blissful and limited family unit drawn here, and the fairly patronising overtones about the ‘status’ of women, is Chang making a valid point?

I do like this challenge to the presumed idea that the internet is the greatest progression that society has ever made. But I’m slightly bristling at the argument which places the realm of washing clothes so firmly with women, and that simplifies complex interpersonal processes such as divorce or workplace equality into such a linear process.

On an individual (and possibly selfish) level I’d rather be able to stream a documentary whilst emailing a friend than dry and iron my clothes in super-quick time. But, do we owe more to other technological inventions than we think?

No doubt, inventions such as the washing machine changed the way we all live. But, is there more to come from the telecommunications revolution in the future? And what about the social change which the internet has already brought about?

What’s on your bookshelf?

Finishing reading a book which you have loved every minute of is a bitter-sweet moment. You know that you will never again experience reading it for the first time, no matter how many times you return to re-read in future.

I suppose one of the best ways of countering this is by staying faithful to a list of favourite authors to whose books you immediately approach when visiting a bookshop. You can be (almost) sure that their other work will give you something new to think about, whilst picking up similar pleasurable (if that’s the best word for it) threads as their other writing. Whilst browsing my bookshelf for the next book to begin, it really hit me that I am incredibly guilty of this habit.

Not only does my collection feature groups of books by the same authors, Barnes, Carter, Darrieussecq, Kingsolver, Orwell, Woolf (yes, in alphabetical order) I realised that these groups of books are, for the most part, written by women.

As we fast approach the June announcement of the Orange prize for Fiction is there an especial resonance to considering the sex of the authors we generally read?

The shortlist was announced just last week and a (female) friend noted that the Orange prize winners tend to follow similar themes, in line with their ‘feminine’ authors and (perhaps more dangerously) audience.

So, it has to be asked, does the Orange prize really cater only for women, following a series of themes only of interest to half of the species? What’s more, do reading habits follow gender lines overall? Although it looks like I’ve run out of time to finish the shortlist, perhaps it’s something to bear in mind when we begin this year’s winner?