Sssh… Be Quiet

I feel a little awkward. Three months ago I was sent a piece of non fiction to review, and it’s taken me this long to actually read it. Yes, I know, shocking. Three months to read a book? That’s a quarter of the year, or the whole of blinking spring. And it wasn’t an effort to read, although it felt a little rusty picking up the page I’d left off weeks before. Life simply came between me and the book, well actually other books, literary books, came between me and the book, so sorry book, but then it was non fiction and I tend to be a little sl-ow-er with such texts. Dry. I find them bone dry. Usually a chapter is interspersed by days and/or weeks followed by another chapter, and the sorry cycle repeats again. However this book was different. Yes, it was dry, packed full of research but it was also well written, the research presented in an anecdotal way, wetting my lips, but above all, eloquently enthusing about a subject close to my heart; introversion.

For many, many years I was a closet introvert, and a brilliant performance extrovert. It was tiring. Outgoing was my persona du jour. Like I said, very very tiring. I never understood why open plan offices were so draining, why I couldn’t bear team activities, why I never had the energy for the after work pub crawl with my louder and far-more -up -for -it colleagues. It took me years and years, well actually, and would you believe it, until a few years ago, to finally work it all out. And when I did, it felt so liberating, the heaviest of weights – a gargantuan leaden box – lifted away, like feathers.  At last I was free of pretence, now I could breathe and be myself in truth. You see, I’m a really sensitive soul, overwhelmed by too much noise, too much colour, and often, by too many people. I possess the paper-thin skin of a doily, and the over active imagination of the happy neurotic, but for so long I pretended otherwise. Why? Because from a young age I sniffed out that extroversion was what was done, what was required of me to get up and get on in both  family and school. And later, I gravitated towards the performance, the approving hand claps and cheers. As a teenager I attended a local drama college on Saturday mornings, brought out of my shell, and went on to become a sort-of party animal, DJing in clubs for a decade during my twenties, and early thirties. Sounds very out there doesn’t it? But hold on, is DJ’ing really that extroverted? I bought records in solitude, I played records in my bedroom in solitude, I made mix tapes in solitude. I listened to the grooves, absorbing every beat, letting my imagination soar, in solitude. Music was a thing I adored in my alone-ness, then sharing the rhythms in the dark cave of a club, anonymous arms waving like seaweed in appreciation of what I was doing; safely unfolding myself, showing who I really was through the twelve inch vinyl spinning on the deck. I felt deeply connected within the secluded cocoon of the DJ booth. Obsessing over the latest release was as nerdy as it got…

I don’t like crowds. I prefer one-on-one chat. I like peace and silence, pottering in my garden, reading a good book, writing a well constructed sentence. I love taking a walk in the woods, bending into a downward dog, sitting, meditating outside on a late spring evening. I adore my family and closest friends, but I need my space too; I love my own company. Solitude is a lifeline, my elixir to feeling restored and refreshed in a loud and out there world.

And so I found the book, Quiet, by Susan Cain an important piece of thoughtful research that spoke to my true nature, my introversion. It addresses the West’s preoccupation with the extrovert ideal, how the qualities of the introvert have been undervalued, even denigrated within education and the workplace. Jon Ronson from the Guardian describes her book as a Female Eunuch for anxious nerds, and I couldn’t agree more; some of the greatest social revolutions and creative achievements were by those who made the least noise. Cain’s particular focus is on her home country, the US, and how extroversion spread like a wild rash till the point that  job descriptions now stipulate introverts need not apply, that type of personality doesn’t fit the role. Her most enjoyable chapter is a historical account of how the US transformed from a culture of character to a culture of personality, from the thinker to the salesman. Now institutions are organised in a one size fits all approach geared to the extrovert ideal; open plan offices, team work, vocal debate; strategies that aren’t beneficial to the introvert who flourishes working individually in an environment with few or preferably no distraction(s). At Harvard Business School introversion is openly frowned upon, the enemy of progress, while extroversion is revered, turned into a social sport where those organising the most colourful gatherings are viewed as top of their educational game, the ones who’ll forge ahead in life and business. When interviewed, introverted students said they felt under intense pressure to socially perform and speak up, regardless of their intelligence and positive grades.

Susan Cain stresses a need for balance, a level playing field so we may all reach our potential. Extroverts and introverts need each other to function well, the yin and yang, they can bring out the best in the other. She argues we need change, to seriously reassess our values; we need to reign in our obsession with extroversion before it completely spins us out of control; the way society has misunderstood the traits and capabilities of introverted people has led to a colossal waste of talent, energy and happiness. We seriously need some quiet…

Disclaimer: I was sent Quiet by Susan Cain to review, all opinions are my own.  

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6 responses

  1. I am an introvert par excellence. Always have been, but have struggled as well to claim my own little space away from the crowds. When I was younger, people used to mistake me for being arrogant, when in fact I was just a little ‘head in the clouds’. I just didn’t try to make eye contact with everyone around me, thus sometimes walking past people I knew who might have wanted to say hello – and sometimes I still do. Thus, should we ever happen to be at the same conference, give me a nudge and say hello 🙂 xx

    • I always used to think that there was something wrong with me – that I couldn’t keep up with everyone else who could party on all through the night, that I would get so tired so easily, and I never knew there was an explanation for how easily overwhelmed I would feel… And I am so with you on the eye contact thing, I’m not very good at maintaining eye contact either, something I’m still working on. And if I bumped into you, of course I would say hello. X

  2. I’ve heard about this book before and been tempted to read it. Now I think I’m going to have to. I’m a total introvert and these days I’m very happy that way because I’ve stopped feeling pressured to be someone I’m not. When I was younger though – like you – I felt I should conform. I remember feeling there was something a bit wrong with me when I didn’t want to go out all the time (or barely ever actually) when at university. I just wished everyone else would prefer a nice chat down the pub rather than a huge, busy night out.

    When I figured out it was fine to be an introvert i became much happier. Now I love it; I’m not happy despite it, I’m happy because of it! I don’t need to constantly be around other people to be happy, I don’t need to have other people to bounce ideas off all the time (although it’s great sometimes)- I can be creative all by myself, and I don’t need constant input from external sources.

    That said, I am actually, in some contexts, incredibly sociable and I adore and need my friends and family, i just accept the fact that at the end of a sociable evening I will probably be the one to go home first!

    I wonder if many writers are extroverts? There is so much more I could say on this subject but this comment has gone on quite long enough! This post has really made me think! Thanks! xx

    • With all the research it is a little dry in places but it’s still an illuminating read. I think introversion gets easier as you get older as you become more relaxed with yourself with age; as you say, the pressure to conform and please others is much greater when you are younger. I don’t like busy nights out either; all I need is a good book and bed socks! It’s great not to want company all the time, it’s great to enjoy my own company, and you can still be very sociable and introverted, just as long as you get the right amount of down time to recoup the batteries – there’s interesting pieces on this in the book – I definitely recommend reading it. X

  3. I hope we will find time for a one-on-one chat at BritMums Live. 🙂
    Quiet sounds like a really interesting book, thank you for the review.
    And very happy for you that you now feel you can be who you really are. xx

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