“Quiet” is the Outlier in a Huckster World

NEW SLAUGHTERI finally got around to reading Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. And I’ve actually had people guffaw when I told them.

“You!?”, they asked … with a real off-putting mix of accusation and incredulity. The point of their reaction being that I’m some kind of hopeless, congenital extrovert, the sucker-of-air from every room I enter and a human emblem for the Anthony Robbins’ system of awakening my giant within by force of unmodulated personality and raw dominance of personal interactions. From in here looking out, that’s an alien image. But their response is so definitive I haven’t even bothered to counter it. (How would you go about arguing that you you are not the sort of person who dominates-to-win social encounters?) But the fact that I’m pretty much post-caring what the unintuitive think confirms my self-diagnosis as an introvert. I feel no need to “sell” myself 24/7, never have and I’m embarrassed for those who do. (Born and raised in Minnesota, you know.) And the aversion to self-selling is at the root of Cain’s point about “the power of the introvert”.

She gets a little touchy-fuzzy for my tastes in parts, making her case for how the world’s listeners and mullers and methodical analyzers eventually exert their influence in society. There’s a lot of wishfulness in the case she lays out. But she’s definitely on to a malaise in our social media-connected, perpetually-interactive, sell-or-be-sold world.

When she describes studies demonstrating how test groups of strangers will invariably identify those who talked the most as “the smartest”, it rings a familiar bell. How many times have you watched someone, usually a male, (since bloviating women suffer an annoyance penalty that men of their kind rarely do), gas on … and on … doing everything short of holding a gun on the rest of the group just to sustain themselves as the center of attention … and are then rewarded with group approval for being “so bright”, “so intelligent” … when all you could think was, “Is this moron ever going to shut up?”

Cain makes only passing comments on our media culture. But her indictment is so explicit she hardly has to belabor it. Pick a medium and it is dominated by … those “who can’t stop talking”, by people who are (and probably always have been) compulsive about selling themselves; what they know, what they think, what you should think of them and what advice of theirs you need to follow. The familiar encouragement to pundits before going on air, to “be passionate” about their opinions and “feel free to engage” their fellow panelists is part of the same syndrome. Authoritative and loud equals winning. You can quantify it.

Over the years I’ve frequently been amazed at self-professed journalists who seemed incapable of shutting-the-fuck-up. The old line about how, “I never learned anything listening to myself talk” apparently never resonated with them. Interviewing subjects for stories involved 10-minute questions larded with anecdotes demonstrating mastery of all matters at hand, followed by barely enough patience to listen to a fifteen second answer. And that’s when they’re on the job. Over drinks these characters fall of a cliff of self-absorption. Or so it seems to me … because I generally detect yawns and wandering eyes 15 seconds into anything I say, even if I’m ordering lunch.

There’s no superficial pop test for determining introversion or extroversion, as Cain sees it. (The book is structured around her travels from researcher to researcher on the subject). We all embody aspects of the furthest poles ends. We all have our immobile, mute fetal tuck moments and our Russell Brand moments. But the surest test of your essential nature is understanding where you go to charge your batteries to do what most satisfies you. “Natural extroverts” need a fresh audience. “Natural introverts” need time alone.

She even makes the claim that Barack Obama is more introvert than extrovert, in that he is clearly someone who does his best thinking away from the spotlight and microphone and has visible distaste for engaging in cheesy bon homie and rabble rousing.

My broader cultural point — as opposed to Cain’s — is that this reflexive, mass celebration of those “who can’t stop talking”, of the compulsive super-salesmen/pitchmen is an environment saturated in superficiality and contrived conflict. “Stars” are those capable of drawing and holding attention, usually far beyond the intellectual value they provide, and the conflict of competition for attention (and ratings, and money) distorts the actual divisions between people and groups. Meanwhile, those who have run the numbers, done the math, tested the waters and read the footnotes are ignored, or need “encouragement” (i.e. a kick in the ass) to stand up and politely say, “Uh, excuse me. I’m sorry. But what you said is complete and utter bullshit.”

As Jack Abramoff  — a sociopathic extrovert — once said, “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people”. Susan Cain presents an underlying explanation that probably never occurred to old Jack.

37 Responses

  1. I’ll take this as a reminder to read it. It’s a fresh topic. Introversion hasn’t been contemplated much, while extroversion has, with even its own set of manuals. Anthony Robbins and Dale Carnegie and Harvey McKay and everything else.

    Introversion’s companion topic, more clinical, is probably Aspergers. Though the great big caveat is that it’s very sloppy to use Aspergers as shorthand for introversion. Fairly trendy though, with some brainy discussions of it percolating in the last few years.

    Either way, my own social awkwardness is sometimes acute. But my mental dialogue is robust and constant. I sense this is normal among introverts, and that this rhythmic internal dialogue that repeatedly constructs, answers, and reforms questions is the kernel of the introvert’s superior concentration and problem solving ability. I don’t know if Cain describes it that way, but I have been waiting for someone to put their finger on this and articulate it.

    All that said, I’d caution against too much pride for our big brains, and being too dismissive of the social butterflies. Emotional, empathic intelligence is just that. It is intelligence, and not actually inferior to memorization and computational abilities. It sure is good to have high EQ.

    • Hmm….Great comment J Redding! I recall reading I think Daniel Goleman’s wonderful study some years ago although not aware of Aspergers in any way analagous to introversion unless at extreme end of the scale.

      • It’s probably a stretch for me to say that, and perhaps an objectionable one. But a way to look at it might be Aspergers is to introversion as sociopathy is to extroversion. Both related to a greater concept, but a subset.

    • Cain would probably quarrel with my take-aways. But I think you’re on the right track. And as I say, she SEEMS to encourage people who think of themselves as “introverts” to step it p a bit and learn to assert themselves when, after their methodical analyses, they see something that needs correcting or improving.

      But EQ — having enough sense of self to properly read your audience and interact more on thoughtfulness than emotional need — is regularly implied.

  2. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    Wake me when you have the definitive piece on Michelle O’s “Irishness”.

    • Bertie old man, have you ever considered putting down your rifle, leaving your fortified perimeter and letting the world see your tender and sensitive side? You know, where you’re only packing your purse gun and not your .45?

      • I’m Irish, not French.

        • but think of what you are missing—steak au poivre and a fine burgundy instead of a potato and a six pack of guinness! Laissez les bons temps rouler!

  3. Loved this book, I said to myself.

    I wrote a post a while back on the problem with group brainstorms, the extroverts’ workplace Disneyland. The punditry implications of an extrovert-dominated society are at least as profound.

    With TV and radio punditry, the value is put on certainty, volume and dominance, not contemplation, ambiguity and nuance. That pundit behavior impacts politician and voter behavior, and vice versa.

    Introverts are constantly saying to themselves “I don’t know because I don’t have enough information yet” and “I need to think about that a little more before I take a stand” and “I think the guy I disagree with has a point on part of his comments.” But any pundit who utters those words on the air will quickly become an ex-pundit. The same with politicians. As a result, they’re often wrong but never in doubt.

    • The punditry angle was a primary reason for this post, because within that treadworn shtick lies so much of the rancorous noise in today’s culture. If people learned to practice skepticism toward the “types” that dominate discussion by volume, compulsive energy and anger — on cable TV and in radical mosques — we might live in a less stressful world.

  4. Yep, and we damn well assimilated.

  5. Yes, well, if I’m headed to the pub, give me a group of entertaining raconteurs standing up at the bar any day over a stolid cairn of introverts wedged into a booth. There are, of course, the merely garrulous, who are easy enough to avoid. But conversation and storytelling are skills to be honed. Standing around looking at your shoes is readily achieved in early childhood.

    • Well, as I say, Cain’s view of extroverts is probably less pejorative than mine, and I’m most interested in the compulsive kind, who have no ability to read an audience … and yet somehow are regarded as “authoritative”.

      Also, I have less patience with the smart, well-intentioned introverts who can’t develop the muscle to … at long last … say what needs to be said.

    • But isn’t there quite a spectrum between developing social skills, civility, genuine interest in others and ideas, the fundamental ability to express oneself, and standing around looking at your shoes?

      • Yes. And the pub problem is one that usually solves itself anyway.

        Introversion is not best described by shyness and degrees of assertiveness. It’s whether you feed off all that interpersonal interaction / effort or not. I don’t think introverts are all that easy to persuade, lead, manipulate, or push around either. They are very often subversive, and get their way often, maybe more often.

        • Love the conversation. I suppose if I read the book I could answer these questions myself but if we equate introversion with a level of self-reflection and a more contemplative nature I can understand less likely to be influenced by group-think but “subversive” and more apt to get “their own way”? Why? In fact I would think “interpersonal interaction” could well fuel the reflective process of the introvert. Or as Woody Allen said,”I’m not anti-social, I’m just not that social.” The mind of the artist/writer/composer/inventor/etc.etc….

      • Absolutely. This author would point out that there are introverts who are excellent public speakers, CEOs, salespeople, etc. PR people even.

        Introversion doesn’t mean you’re staring at your shoes, afraid of your shadow. That’s the stereotype extroverts use. Anti-social is not the same as introvert. Shy is not the same as introvert.

        Introverts are simply people who get energy from being alone, rather than getting energy from being with others. Being with others is enjoyable to most introverts to a point, but being around people is hard work for introverts. Being in groups and being “on” wears them out…maybe because they’re spending so much energy reading their audiences, something some extroverts do less of. So when introverts need to get their batteries charged, they would rather be home or in the corner of the room people watching and listening than being constantly interacting with others.

        Some of the advantages of this is that introverts can be good at processing and analyzing, because they are spending more energy thinking and less energy performing.

        But Brian makes a good point. If all the introvert does is have conversations with themselves, all of that processing and analyzing isn’t benefiting anyone.

        I’m off-the-charts introverted, but I like be around people, am obviously not shy about expressing my opinion, am perfectly comfortable with public speaking and presenting, and am not thought of as an introvert by most casual acquaintances. But being around people expends my battery and being alone charges it, and that causes me to not have a constant craving to be on stage or seeking out small talk.

        This is a really thought-provoking book. Whether you’re an I or an E, it will give you a better appreciation of the value of introverts.

      • Experience tells me, yes. But I’m just going by Lambo’s rather stark take. Extroverts, bad, facile, oppressive blowhards. Introverts, good, reflective, deep-analysts.

    • Often, being at the pub is the introverts way of solving the communications problem. Sometimes all it takes if a beer or two to overcome the barriers.

      Just remember, all who like to regale require an audience. without introverts, we’d all be talking past each other.

  6. “Minnesota will now compete with Iowa as the Midwest destination for gay wedding tourism”.

    Have at it, BL!

  7. One of the things that has interested me for quite a while is how conservatives, after rebuking the left and minorities for decades for using the mantle of “victims” to advance their “agenda”, are now doing the same thing:

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/06/christian-pundits-gay-marriage/66646/

    Why are conservatives so eager to play the role of victims?

    (this is not something new, of course. Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity focused on the change from “master morality” to “slave morality” that he assigned to Judeo-Christian values. Master morality celebrated the strong and powerful and the values associated with being strong and powerful, while slave morality celebrated the meek, the powerless, etc.–victims, in other words)

    • Bertram posits that you interpreting conservatives as “victims” is erroneous, but yet somewhat feasible, as what you are witnessing is the decrying of the continued assaults on our liberty, the ignorance of the rule of law, and of the divisiveness being foisted on our society.

      The natives are indeed getting restless, I assure you, and victimhood ain’t part of the plan.

  8. The Threadbare Shibboleths with opening act Stolid Cairn.

    Beat that!

  9. C’mon, Lambert…Bertram is getting anxious.

    You’re due for a noxious emission…Trayvon, Benghazi photos, Barry’s 1890 issued Social Security number, Clinton’s draft history, hell, even the Pohlad’s IRS problem uncovered by the “non-local” press….have at it!

    • I’m recovering from my sojourn in the wilderness … where I experienced great visions. I saw Eric Cantor cast into the fiery maw of hell. I saw Mitch McConnell pilloried as a sodomizer of scaly beasts with cloven hoofs. I saw Salma Hayek beckoning to me from a far island. It must have been the tuna schmeckler and single malt scotch.

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