In quiet praise of introverts in a loud world, The Age

August 27, 2012

MOST people I know have taken at some stage the Myers-Briggs personality test. For a long time, I refused to be tested, partly because I thought my personality should be one aspect of life that isn’t subjected to quasi-scientific evaluation. My act of resistance, I told myself, was a defiant gesture against the triumph of managerialism in modern life.

A few weeks ago I succumbed to an idle moment of weakness. I took a quick test online and discovered, among other things, that I was supposedly an introvert.

This surprised me a little as I had always assumed I was an extrovert. I don’t mind crowds; I enjoy speaking and debating in public. Few of my friends would describe me as the shy or retiring type.

Yet the truth is I’ve always had a side of me that has cherished intense solitude. My research work as a political philosopher tends to be done alone among books. I am often most fulfilled when I am deep in thought or writing. There remains something about ”the life of the mind” that appeals to me.


Modern Western cultures don’t always value such an orientation. For example, many have traditionally considered Australians to be utilitarian in our approach to life. It is said that we prefer the practical over the theoretical. Our idealised national personality is based on the idea of ”having a go”, something usually regarded as the opposite of contemplative reflection.

In her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, American writer Susan Cain explores some of the cultural assumptions behind Western thinking about temperament and personality. In her view, our modern social norms are defined by a celebration of the ”Extrovert Ideal”. We seem to admire a particular type of individual: the one who isn’t afraid to put themselves forward.

As a result, introversion is now a second-class personality trait, a symptom of moral impairment. We have, according to Cain, turned extroversion ”into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform”.

This has been a long time in the making. Since around the turn of the 20th century there has been a shift from a culture of character to a culture of personality. Whereas we once believed the ideal self was defined by discipline, honour and moral purpose, we now place greater emphasis on openness, sociability and charisma. The self has come to be about performance rather than integrity.

Much of Cain’s story reflects the development of American society and the demands of mature capitalism. The rise of big business and urbanisation meant there was an advantage to being a ”mighty likeable fellow”. Being affable was important to getting ahead not only in large anonymous workplaces, but also getting on in a society of strangers.

However, what may have started as something American is now definitively global. There is something about the Extrovert Ideal that seems true of our own Australian experience.

Any trend towards the priority of personality over character has, moreover, been reinforced by technological change. Therapeutic narcissism may define future generations, if it doesn’t already define some current ones. Fewer and fewer musings are left private; the modern self is about self-disclosure. Social media, for those of us who use it, mean that we are permanently connected to the thoughts and whims of friends and acquaintances.

As Cain powerfully argues, our easy acceptance of extroversion mightn’t be a good thing.

There is something wrong with believing that the ideal self must be ”gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”. The behaviour associated with confident extroversion doesn’t necessarily lead to better results. Researchers have found that introverted CEOs tend to perform better than extroverted ones. Pundits on American television have been shown to be less likely than random chance to make correct predictions about political and economic trends.

There is much in Cain’s insightful book that is worth considering. It isn’t always a good thing to be bold and certain. Sometimes it is better to be unassuming and reflective – to listen and not talk. And it is possible to have multiple sides to one’s personality: we aren’t all simply extroverted or introverted, but exhibit such characteristics in degrees.

Modern societies, increasingly defined by pluralism, contain a paradox. We may need to look within before we can live better with others. It is the test of citizenship today that we accept moral and cultural differences, and learn from them. But we can’t understand others unless we first understand ourselves.

In more practical terms, we shouldn’t assume that the most vocal or confident person is the one who is correct or the one who should lead. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi put it: ”Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”