Published in South Asian Parent magazine
I used to have imaginary friends. I liked them more than my real ones, and I shared all my secrets while holding their invisible hands.
I read more than I spoke, and I preferred the world within those pages. I dreamed, and still dream, vividly, of glittering landscapes and villains who terrified my mind and whales that flew in through the window. No matter where I was—at school, at home, or in the backseat of my father’s Buick—I was safest in my own quiet. Nobody could look inside it but me.
“Speak up,” I was always told. “Look straight, say it louder.”
“She’s too soft,” I’d hear them whisper outside the door. “She needs to be stronger.”
It used to surprise me, this insistence that I was weaker somehow, because I spoke in a lower decibel and didn’t fight back when provoked. I was certain I was fine—happy, even—content with my own thoughts, not needing them to be acknowledged.
But it was murdered, that contentment, soon after I was just beginning to delight in it.
“Be confident. Talk to new people. Speak firmly or they’ll take advantage of you.” I was nurtured, as the vast majority of children are, into becoming a socially acceptable extrovert.
“If you want to be successful, you have to have a certain personality,” I was told. It appeared that personality was expressive and dynamic, a ‘natural’ born leader.
I was none of those things. But funnily enough, eventually I became them all.
It was a farce. I smiled widely at strangers, but shook with fear at approaching them. I delivered speeches at podiums, and spent sleepless nights in anticipation. I chatted at dinner parties, but was always desperate to run back to my room.
I lived this way, a closet introvert learning to be a louder version of myself, for 29 years. I despised it. And then I was given a gift; a package that travelled across the Atlantic disguised as a birthday present, unbeknown it would soon free me of a lifelong sentence.
It took the form of a book, aptly titled Quiet.
“Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”¹
It came with a tagline: ‘the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, and I started to believe Susan Cain had written it just for me.
It told me Dr. Seuss, Charles Darwin, Rosa Parks, and Steve Wozniak were introverts—successful, impactful personalities who would much rather be left alone. It revealed that open plan offices lead to lower productivity, that group brainstorming doesn’t generate the best ideas, that introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability, and that groundbreaking ideas have most often been developed in solitude.
However, now more than ever, the world puts a premium on extroversion. The workplace is designed to reward those who display it best, social media demands we produce a digital version of it, and schools are organized to train students into extroverts of the highest order.
“If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologise for your shyness. Or at school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’ – that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and some humans are just the same.”
I used to think that shell was my enemy, a big fat display of my shortcoming. But underneath it, I have learned to forgive, adapt, tolerate, restrain, imagine, and explore. Because of it, I have dared to go deeper than was ever demanded of me.
Balance is necessary, as Cain explains more profoundly than I can detail here. We need the outspoken just as much as those who are inward bound. The problem is society doesn’t weight them both equally. We are inching closer to exterminating the perspective of passive introverts in favour of crowd-stirring conversationalists.
Nowhere does this danger lurk more than in the highly permeable minds of developing children.
For parents, teachers, and any influencers of the innocent mind—being conscious of this imbalance could be the difference between nurturing a person into becoming the truest version of himself or a dishonest version of what the environment expects.
The majority of mankind’s advancements in technology, morality, and science, amongst others, were created by people who learned best independently, and cherished solitude in their workspace. While we rush our children to extracurricular activities and group study sessions, do we make enough time for them to be alone, to discover what they can uniquely contribute to the world?
If we breed one type of personality style, irrespective of whether it leads to the most success, are we any different than extremists who demand a superior race, gender or religious inclination?
When we worry about a quiet child not socializing enough, do we place equal weight on the extrovert sibling who succeeds socially, but finds it hard to develop a single idea contrary to convention?
“I worry there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded…They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it wasn’t until I read Quiet that I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of, that I did not have to “think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”
I could read alone for hours and not talk to anyone. I could refuse to meet someone for lunch because I wanted to sit with a new idea instead. I could admit it was difficult to be in a boardroom, at a wedding, or any environment that demanded conversation was my comfort zone.
I can say now that I am proud of my necessity for solitude. Were it not for that, none of my words would have ever reached a blank page.
I ask parents to pay attention to their quiet ones. There is originality in their minds; help develop it, and don’t force their silence into submission.
The solution isn’t to resolve whether introversion or extroversion is superior; it is merely to “put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.
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 available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.”
Now free from the burden of an expectation I was never to meet, I can find my way back to my childhood contentment. And that contentment, I suppose, is my power.
¹Cain, Susan. (2012) Quiet. New York, New York: Penguin Books.