The last time you applied for a job you may have received the advice to appear confident and likable, to self-promote, to smile, nod and say yes! It’s all about presentation. If you play your personality right, you win.
Culture in the United States has been shaped by what writer and co-founder of the Quiet Revolution Susan Cain terms in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” the Extrovert Ideal: “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” From pop culture to marketing, business and downtime to personal relationships, American culture relishes the outwardly powerful personality of performance. We seek the loud voice that paints a picture in which we can mimic greatness, beauty, wealth and status. Our current presidency and social media influencer culture are products of the mindset to follow the magnetic and gregarious. We find these personalities fascinating, attractive, intoxicating and exceptionally valuable, even without seeking what lies behind the veil of persona. But why?
Cultural historians mark a social shift at the beginning of the twentieth century linked to the industrial revolution. People migrated en masse from small communities to populated cities. Transitioning from people knowing all of their neighbors, to proving themselves to an audience of strangers encouraged those people to seek a new personality to meet the needs of the new social exchange and environment.
Psychological historian Warren Susman studied repetition of keywords used in widely popular self-help manuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and categorized them into two lists. The first list, generated from texts from the nineteenth century included the repetition of words such as honor, morals, golden deeds, manners, conquest and integrity, while the second list, taken from texts from the twentieth century championed words such as: magnetic, attractive, dominate and forceful. “The older culture … demanded something it called “character,” which stressed moral qualities, whereas the newer culture insisted on “personality,” which emphasized being liked and admired. The findings exist in Susman’s “Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century.”
Here, he posits, the social value of the quiet and autonomous began to dim, and the charismatic personality began to rise. This changed the external mold of the “ideal” person to value the more extroverted over the more introverted quality of character or thought, pushing introverts and those not naturally gregarious to the wayside. Being somebody and fitting in became more important than the larger scope of having character.
However, the spectrum of introversion and extroversion is not a line in the sand in which a person stands to one side or the other. Instead, it is a spectrum that is designated by how one reacts to environmental stimulus. There are those that lean in towards the quiet garden, and others that thrive at the block party barbecue. Cain and research published by Popular Psychology reveal that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the population considers themselves introverted, regardless of their outward display of personality. The official random sampling of those who take the Myers-Briggs test reveals that introverts make up 50 percent of those sampled.
“In the day and age of the new communication revolution, we may still be proving ourselves to an audience of strangers, but we are doing it in a new way, leaving behind a complete digital catalog of all of our actions and words that seemingly will live on forever.”
There isn’t a lack of introverted people in the American population, but people with introverted tendencies – those that have a lower threshold for outside stimulus, have learned to adapt to a culture in which they must outwardly display extroverted qualities to fit the stereotypical role of leader. Charles Meisgeier, Ph.D is an expert in the identification and accommodation of personality types in children. A study he produced in 1994 entitled “Implications and applications of psychological type to educational reform and renewal” revealed 76 percent of teachers participating in the study identified the ideal student as an extrovert. Schools often grade on participation and class discussion, traits associated with performance, not comprehension of the subject. Harvard Business School classes often come with high stakes – with 50 percent of the classroom grade hinging on participation and a “performance evaluation.” American workplace and educational environments continue encouraging and developing curriculum and shared workspaces that promote social stimulus: open floor plans, desks pushed together, creative meetings and team or group work, while some people do their best work and think more deeply when left to their own devices of solitude, silence or lower levels of environmental stimulus.
In the day and age of the new communication revolution, we may still be proving ourselves to an audience of strangers, but we are doing it in a new way, leaving behind a complete digital catalog of all of our actions and words that seemingly will live on forever. Those that take the time to contemplate their words, actions and ideas before sending them out into the social media abyss may hold more long-term power in a digital world. Those that have the skills to deeply and actively listen may enable an individual or group to fully understand and engage appropriately with many new social, economic and environmental movements. These movements desperately need careful attention and action to create better social systems that promote a livable and just future. It is undeniably true that society needs the magnetic orating and performance of extroverts like Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, but it also needs the soft-spoken and no less powerful introverts like Rosa Parks or Maya Angelou.
Consider the self-love and self-care movements taking place on many social media feeds which signal to viewers and subscribers that it is ok to need downtime, to say no, to stay home and watch Netflix or read a book when in need of a recharge. Perhaps there is a shift in the social equilibrium that we aren’t meant to be fanatically social creatures all the time. Some of us need the chance to recharge to let our creativity take flight or to sit in quiet environments so we can think for ourselves.
Extroversion and the culture of personality have permeated and birthed the modern American world, but introverts and quiet, independent thinkers may be the key to reimagining ourselves, how we do business and who we follow. It may be time to break free from the groupthink of the American cultural inheritance.
There is a deep need to make space and celebrate the introvert. It may be time to free the introvert from the social personality constructs that have been cultivated in education, social and work environments in American culture, to reimagine leadership roles from the bold and blaring packaging, for there is so much value to those that listen and speak with quiet and thoughtful power.