‘We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard’s education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.’ ~ Susan Cain – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
In May last year, I wrote about a TED talk I had watched where Susan Cain spoke about her research into introversion, and her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Her talk spoke to me deeply. I think for any introvert, who might have gone through their life feeling guilty that they’re not more extrovert, more social, louder or more charismatic, her talk might have released a feeling of relief and gratitude. I have been a painfully shy person – have been someone who finds it difficult, at the best of times, to interact with large groups of people, or express my views verbally. With close friends and family, I’m more erudite, and can talk about things more deeply, but I definitely find I have a horror of small talk and love to have interesting, deep conversations about life, the universe and everything. In everyday company, this is often thought of as odd, maybe even as rude or as if I’m socially awkward.
So, right now, I’m finally reading Susan Cain’s book. What a book it is! Perhaps a book I wished had existed back when I was a teenager, or when I was at University. A book that says – it’s okay if you’re an introvert, you don’t have to be an extrovert. It delves into the myriad reasons why introversion is a good thing, is something that has created, invented, and changed things in the world. It’s okay if I become overstimulated by too much social interaction at a time – even on Facebook I head for burnout if I spend too much time in conversation in groups or interacting with people on Twitter. It isn’t shyness, as I always fear it is.
It is just a natural inclination to feel too much, to feel too open and exposed, as often the internet makes us feel. Sharing can be good – to an extent. I engage with people in meaningful ways on the internet – with activism, with deep emails or private messages from my closest friends, with people on Twitter who need some encouragement, with people who need advice – and giving so much of yourself can sometimes be intensely painful, especially for someone who is, in day to day interaction, often fairly quiet. Quietness doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening in your mind. Introversion is having a natural inclination towards thoughtfulness, listening to people, thinking more before you speak. I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt forced into saying something for the sake of saying something – and it isn’t pretty. I’d rather take a slower and more measured approach to conversation.
Introversion isn’t shyness. Although I’ve struggled with shyness most of my life (from age 9 onwards), introversion is separate from shyness. It seems that shyness is more akin to social anxiety (perhaps a less severe version?), whilst introverts:
‘…may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pyjamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.’ – Susan Cain
I’m not sure where my shyness came from. It seems to be something deep within that cringes away from large social gatherings of people I might not know, or an unfamiliar environment where I’m not with someone I know. It varies from situation to situation – for example, I’m happy to be on my own in London if I’m doing something solitary and am surrounded by people, but if I have to meet people I don’t know in a crowded environment, my shyness goes into overdrive and I find myself behaving unnaturally, overcompensating by trying to make people laugh, for example.
Inside, I cringe, and wish I could just be myself. Shyness, to me at least, seems to be a fear of social judgement. I’m always working on overcoming it, and I remind myself of all the things I have done that I’ve managed to get through – like a group interview at the Guardian and being filmed for my BSL Stage 2 final exam – and I generally have to talk myself into things, giving myself pep talks, thinking of the worse case scenario and thinking about how I’d deal with that. At the same time, I accept that it is part of me, even if shyness can be painful.
My introversion, though, is all about needing periods of solitude. As a writer, this is a good thing – I’m comfortable in my own company and find it hard to write and work with someone else in the room, unless I have my hearing aids out, and yes I’m lucky as I have my own silence. I think it can be hard to come to terms with deafness if you’re not at peace within your own silence. I used to find it hard, especially when I was young – and bedtimes were a time when my imagination went into overdrive, and silence was scary. Susan Cain discusses research findings that suggest that introverts are more stimulated by things – by noise, by visual things (art, films, beauty, etc), by social interaction – and find too much stimulation off-putting. In contrast, extroverts need more of something to be stimulated in the same way as introverts and they often feel recharged by social contact, whilst introverts need solitude to recharge.
‘The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions–sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments–both physical and emotional–unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss–another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.’
The beauty of Cain’s book though, is that there is a sliding scale for introversion and extroversion. For example, you might be a highly sensitive extrovert, or a less sensitive introvert, who needs more stimulation to be affected but still loves solitude. Or you might be an extrovert who thinks before they speak! I don’t think Cain is saying that one is better than the other at all – she is advocating for respect and a mutual understanding between both ways of being. For a better way of working and learning that suits both introverts and extroverts. I have both introverts and extroverts in my life, and I think the problem lies with how things are approached in everyday life – like in schools and Universities (the dreaded seminars!), businesses, in the way it is deeply ingrained in us that extroversion is a better way to be, and introversion is awkward, boring and undesirable.
Silence is beautiful. With pauses and space to breathe. It helps you to see things clearly, to imagine and dream. You can find solitude amongst others – in cafes or in parks, but you can also find solitude if you just close your eyes and think or read a book. Solitude lets us come up with solutions, maybe solutions you didn’t think you knew. For me, quiet is space, is imagination, is writing and creating. What does it mean to you?
‘Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe.’ ~ Susan Cain.