After completing her education at Princeton and Harvard Law, Susan Cain worked for years as a corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant. Though she was quite successful, she admits that she was “shy and daydreamy,” dreaded the spotlight and disliked aggression—traits that aren’t typically celebrated in the cutthroat world of corporate law.
Over time, Cain discovered that her introverted temperament was an invaluable career asset. Her literary debut, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a Kirkus-starred narrative that we called “an intriguing and potentially life-altering look at the human psyche.”
What is the extrovert ideal?
It’s a standard that we have in this country of what the ideal self should be—bold and gregarious and outspoken and alpha. This message is communicated from the time we’re very young, so we all internalize it before we even realize what’s happening.
It begins for many people in their families, but even outside the family it begins the minute a child walks into preschool. There’s a study that shows that the majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert, even though introverts get better grades, for example. A quieter or more introverted child understands from the get-go that they have to stretch themselves to maybe be somebody they’re not when they go out into the world.
How does that ideal play out in the workplace?
The majority of workplaces now organize their workers into teams and the amount of private space, per worker, has shrunk since the 1970s from 500 square feet to 200 square feet. This is partly driven by economics—it’s obviously cheaper to have an open office, where nobody has an office of their own. But it’s also driven by a sort of moral ideal that we should be communicating and connecting and collaborating all the time.
I think that’s a mistake for extroverts as well as introverts, because so much of creative or deep thought needs to take place in solitude, or at least in a quiet environment where you won’t be interrupted.
What’s the difference between temperament and personality?
Temperament is the set of emotional and behavioral patterns that you’re born with, and personality is that plus everything that you acquire in the course of your lifetime, mostly by environmental influence and maybe a little bit by will.
For example, an introvert may decide they want to become a person who is very readily “on” when they’re out in public, and then that “on” persona becomes part of their personality. But it still may not be true to their underlying temperament.
Have stereotypes contributed to misunderstandings between people of opposite temperaments?
The real key is to say that there’s no right or wrong way to be. The way that I look at the introvert/extrovert divide is that I feel like we are where we were with women and men in the early 1960s. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, we were at a place in society where women were undervalued in ways that we weren’t always conscious of.
But it led to this gigantic waste of happiness and talent and energy. And that’s where we are now with respect to introverts. When women were trying to create more awareness of their situation, the idea was not to bash men, though I think it was sometimes perceived as that. The idea was just to gain parity for the two genders, and that to me is the correct model for introverts and extroverts.
How can parents of introverted children raise them to appreciate their temperament?
The first thing is that the parent has to appreciate the temperament, and when I say appreciate I don’t mean to tolerate or use formulaic steps to make the child comfortable.
Introverted children are very likely to come up with all kinds of deep and interesting observations about the world around them, but you have to be looking for it instead of focusing on the fact that they may be slower to warm up to others. That slow-to-warm-up piece can be legitimately difficult for parents because they often feel responsible in some way if their child is having trouble that other children aren’t having. But the key is seeing your child as a wondrous creature.
Is it ever beneficial for introverts to be more extroverted?
Everybody acts out of character—extroverts included—for the sake of work, or people that they love. And that’s OK to do and even right and healthy to do so. But the key is that you don’t want to be doing it all of the time, or even most of the time. In general you want to align your career and your social choices as much as you can with your true temperament.
Laura Jenkins is a writer, editor and photographer based in Austin, Texas.