“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.