Friday, October 05, 2012

Disenfranchised by caution

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, personality, introversion, extroversion

Once in a while a book comes along that simply reminds me who I am. Such a book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. From one aspect, the book constitutes a long protest against the deification of extroversion (the "academic" spelling is "extraversion") in the United States. From another, it is a powerful affirmation of the value of introversion in society, particularly American society.

This graphic, from an article in The Journal of Research in Personalty by Robert McCrae, shows the level of extroversion in many countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. The criterion is the E score on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory scale (MBTI). Had the study included the New World, the U.S. would be in the darkest red category, right up there with Turkey, Spain and Sweden. On this map, lack of any color means no data.

Seeing that China is in the next-to-lowest E range, and Taiwan and India are in the lowest, reminds me of an incident when I was in graduate school. It is a stereotype, yet true, that introverts study more persistently than extroverts. I was visiting a friend, a student from Taiwan, who told me that a recent influx of students from India was scaring them all. Formerly the Taiwanese got most of the A grades. Now, the Indians were dominating the highest rankings. "Those guys study day and night," my friend said, "I wonder if they ever sleep!"

A word about MBTI. Based on the ideas of Carl Jung, it ranks people on four scales based on preferences expressed on a self-administered test. The scales are:
  • Introversion versus Extroversion
  • Sensing versus iNtuition
  • Thinking versus Feeling
  • Judging versus Perception
The data for this table were drawn from a page kept by the Ancona family, using data for Americans. The largest cohorts for both men and women are highlighted in red: ISTJ and ESTJ for men, ISFT and ESFJ for women. That also matches a common stereotype. Whether extroverted or introverted, women tend to "feel" and men tend to "think". Overall, Sensors outnumber intuitives about 3-to-1.

The smallest cohorts are highlighted in green: INFJ and ENFJ for men, INTJ and ENTJ for women. My own type is INTP (see the tan highlight), a rather uncommon type, but not the rarest. I am Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinker, Perceptive. If the characteristics were exactly evenly distributed, all the figures would be 6.25%. Although my wife has not taken the MBTI, I estimate that she is ISFJ or ISFP. Curiously, I am pretty sure our son is ESFJ, the exact opposite of my type. More on that later.

According to some scholars, the number of introverts is America is about 30%. The table above indicates it is almost exactly 50%, within the margin of uncertainty. Whatever the true figure is, there are a lot of us. Furthermore, according to study after study, introverts get better grades, are awarded more patents, and attain more Nobel Prizes. Yet the ideal of the extroverted, glad-handing life-of-the-party has forced many introverts to masquerade as extroverts to get or keep their jobs.

In the first section of the book, Ms Cain traces the rise of the "Mighty likeable fellow" to the influence of Dale Carnegie. The Dale Carnegie Course is still offered, and when I attended, I found it a great help. But not everything they teach suits what I can do. Other social trends that followed were not so helpful. Group brainstorming, for example, which relies on hyper-extroverted give-and-take, turns out to be just about the worst way to generate creative ideas. More measured approaches, such as the facilitated Thinking Hats method of Edward deBono, produce more copious and better results, while a combination of individual and group effort, properly facilitated and proctored, works the best; this last requires a facilitator who knows how to draw out the thoughts of all the members, whether quiet or outgoing.

A second section covers the contributions of Nature and Nurture. About 20% of infants are "high reactive", and typically grow into cautious, thoughtful adults. About 40% are "low reactive", apparently fearless, and usually become stereotypical party animals. That leaves 40% who were not discussed, but I reckon that there is actually a spectrum of reactivity and sensitivity, such that roughly half of Americans (at least) are able to behave in both extroverted and introverted ways, as the situation demands.

Yet even the most introverted of us—and by that I do not mean autistic or Asperger people, who are afflicted with a disorder, but I mean those who prefer their inner life over outward activity—are able to learn to speak in public, to assert ourselves, and to socialize and mingle as needed, as long as we get enough downtime to recover.

The book's third section of a single chapter contrasts Asian with Western culture. There may be a significant genetic component at work here, but both Chinese and Indian cultures, for example (picking the two with which I am most familiar), strongly stress the good of the group over the individual, and each has a version of the proverb, "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Among my colleagues and friends who are Asian, the extroverts (there are plenty!) are less likely to steamroll over a quieter person than an American extrovert. These cultures have a greater respect for teachers and scholars than is true in the West (although the result of two generations of Federal meddling in education in America has led to a great increase in poor teachers; many many of the good ones have left the system).

The last section of the book is like an extended advice column: how to act more extroverted when you need to (and how to carve out "me time" to recover); how to communicate with an opposite personality type (the burden is on the introvert); and how to raise an introverted child, particularly for extroverted parents. The glaring thing that is missing here is how introverted parents can raise an extroverted child. I'd have really appreciated some help there over the past 20+ years! Some may think a young extrovert can take care of him/herself. Not so. A child still needs guidance. What kind of example and guidance can be offered to a child when everything around leads him to despise the quietness and caution of his parents?

Personal Notes

If you have been itching to know more about me, read on. Otherwise, skip to the closing heading. I am the most introverted of the four boys my extroverted parents raised. Yet, as I only learned about 15 years ago, I am also bipolar, so there were periods of much more intense sociality and activity. I am a rapid cycler, with about ten cycles yearly (3-4 is more usual).

At the age of 12, my parents had a psychoanalyst spend some time with me, because I was "withdrawn" and "in a shell". To this day, my favorite comic page characters are Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes and Snoopy of Peanuts, both of whom live rich internal lives. It is pretty clear that these two characters exemplify their creators Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz.

My parents and teachers gradually learned that I did best with smaller numbers of people around. Yet, there are a few famous incidents, such as the day I led a group of children to play Santa Clause down the chimney of a large barbecue on school grounds, after which we all tracked ashes into the classroom. Everybody just scratched their heads, "He is usually so quiet." This was an early incident of bipolar mania.

Once I learned about my MBTI scale, and then later was diagnosed Bipolar 2 (milder than the flaming "1" version), I began to study the phenomena. I learned that the old designation Manic-Depressive is quite inaccurate. I learned to think of my moods as Expansive or Contractile. I am Expansive about a quarter of the time, Contractile about half, and in transition the rest. In my Contractile phase, I am more prone to depression, but for me at least, depression is a choice. I am able to embrace the need for quiet and reduced stimulation as needed. In such a phase, if I need to perform in a more Expansive way, I am able to do so, but I know there are consequences, so I schedule time for an extra nap, or a longer time reading a cerebral book. At such times I avoid the TV; it is too "hot". Even in an Expansive mood, I am still an introvert, albeit one who is much more able to bear intensely social situations such as large dinner parties.

I was lucky to stumble on computer programming as a profession, starting in the late 1960s. It exactly suits my need for long periods of focused work. I wrote scientific software for nearly forty years. For the past several years, I have taken advantage of my classical education (bless St. John's Lutheran School in Salt Lake City!) and worked in Knowledge Management. I get plenty of quiet keyboard time!

When I have time to plan, I am able to prepare my mood for an Expansive stretch when it is necessary to do something like make an important speech or meet a room full of customers or vendors. I was an active Toastmaster for more than ten years. It was interesting, being socially involved on a weekly basis, and on the bubble to do a Table Topic or lead a portion of the meeting upon demand. I learned to perform well regardless of my mood. On a particularly contractile day, I could promise the part of me that wanted to cower in a cave that "we" would be back in the office in just half an hour, and could even lie down if needed (I keep a pillow in my office, though now it is a cubicle, but I still take a short "flat" break if I need to).

I have mentioned before that I have started a few churches, and currently lead one that has gradually grown to a membership of about 40. What few of the congregants know is that I take a 2-hour nap right after I get home on a Sunday afternoon. Any church leader will tell you that the congregation reflects its elders. This congregation is probably 70% introverts. Since we practice a participatory style of meeting, that makes it harder than usual to get people to participate. I may go into what I do to make that work some other time. I know most of them think I am extroverted. Some day I'll give instructions on how to be an outspoken introvert, again (it has been a long time. Hmmm. Maybe sooner than later).

As mentioned above, my wife and I have one child, a son, who is very outgoing. We were 42 when he was born. I would have been totally out of my depth at age 22 or 24! When he brought his 8th grade yearbook home, I looked through it. He had nearly half the pictures circled, so I asked him why. He said, "Those are my friends." I decided not to tell him that in any grade, I never had more than three people I'd have called a friend! He was nice enough to let me be a Facebook friend. I have just over 100 FB friends. He has more than 1,000. Curiously, he has enough of a studious streak to endure five years of a rather monastic existence in College and get two degrees, with honors. I suspect he does something analogous, but opposite, to what I do: he can make himself do the quiet work when needed, and recover by partying! I guess that is the normal extrovert way.

I recently checked the keyword statistics on this blog. I have reviewed more than 830 books in seven years, since June of 2005. That averages a book every 3.2 days (It doesn't count a dozen or so books I didn't review because they were so bad I didn't want to give the author any publicity, even to pan the book). You could say I am bookish! Bottom line: I have learned to take advantage of my unique personality, and even to thrive.


Are American introverts victims? Making almost everybody out to be some kind of victim is a popular political game these days. Over the past half century or so, the pendulum has swung to favor the E's. But let us not forget that Einstein and Milton and Bill Gates are introverts. So is a billionaire I once went to school with; he and Gates each make more money in a year than Michael Jordan or Tom Hanks made in their entire careers, so I guess introverts can succeed. They just need to know who they are and keep their center. Famously extroverted Oprah just might catch them, though.

But introverts are less likely to value money over their pursuit of excellence. We like to live well, but not ostentatiously. I think of an article in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic, which showed some of the palaces rich Roma (formerly called Gypsies) have built since the fall of Communism in Romania. Or the huge homes built by emigrants from Hong Kong to southern California prior to the 1997 PRC takeover. An introvert who does very well is likely to get a better house and car, but would think a palace was overdoing it.

There is a reason evolution has kept a wide spectrum of personality types in all animals. In every animal so far studied (a hundred species or so), from mammals and birds to fish to insects, some members of every litter are explorative and outgoing, and others are cautious and observant. It makes sense. Sometimes, the outgoing ones get eaten sooner by waiting predators, and the quieter ones survive; other times there are fewer predators because of declining conditions, and the outgoing ones explore farther and are more likely to found new populations where conditions are better. Back and forth it goes, and all different personality styles are favored in turn.

We need to learn the wisdom of diversity, not only in "ethnicity" but in thinking and feeling of all kinds. It takes all types, it really does!

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