Help! I’m An Introvert Living In An Extrovert’s World


“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 under 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.”

—Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be an extrovert—yes, to be comfortable in crowds, to speak extemporaneously with easy charisma. To be the life of the party! To not only type an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence that you hope conveys enthusiasm and ultra-sincerity, but to live those exclamation marks! To live double exclamation marks!! (If the very sight of all these exclamation marks exhausts you—maybe even repels you—you are probably an introvert like me.)

Oh, but I do love extroverts. I love to listen to their stories; I am drawn by their charisma; I stand in awe at their ability to draw energy from being with other people. To live the life of “action.” To speak fast. To multitask. Wow. I do admire them. But I no longer feel the need to be like them. And more importantly, I no longer believe that I have a second-class personality. Part of this enlightenment is due to the wisdom of age and part of it is due to Susan Cain and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking.

The Culture of Personality

Cain explains how, beginning in the early twentieth century, the Culture of Personality replaced the nineteenth-century ideal of the Culture of Character. American culture moved away from values like citizenship, duty, honor, morals, manners, and integrity, and now preferred people who were: magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic (i.e., the exclamation mark people!) While the Culture of Character could be embodied by extroverts and introverts alike, the Cultural of Personality elevates qualities that lie primarily in the realm of the extrovert. For the rest of us, they spell HELL.

Best-selling author of his day Orison Swett Marden, who in 1899 wrote Character: The Grandest Thing, later captured the dynamic new vision of the Culture of Personality, and in 1921 wrote another best-seller called Masterful Personality. This means that American culture slowly began to idealize extroverts as the upper class of personalities, relegating introverts to steerage. The Dale Carnegies of this world became aligned with what Cain calls “the Extrovert Ideal,” and by the 1950s and 60s, this cultural philosophy was already canonized by most of our social institutions.

Growing Up Shy

Cain explains how, beginning in the 1950s, parents were told to watch out for the shy “maladjusted” child. Yes, we who shunned pep rallies were maladjusted. My mind whips back to 1969 when my mom insisted I try out for Ninth Grade Cheerleader. Nothing could have been more mortifying for a shy introvert. But of course I did it—mercifully, I didn’t make the cut—but I tried out because I was told it would make me more “outgoing,” and everyone wanted to be “outgoing.” It was simply a given that I had to live up to.

Naturally, as a teen growing up in the blooming days of the Culture of Personality, choosing to read the Bronte sisters rather than go out with friends was worrisome. I was pegged as one of those unfortunate children who suffered from the “inferiority complex.” That was what every parent worried about: the inferiority complex, i.e., the shy child.

As far as boys went, my mom was especially worried. If I failed as a cheerleader, the least I could do was date a football player. But around football players, I was hopelessly shy. And uninterested. I didn’t particularly like football. Did that matter? No. I needed to be—not to put too fine a point on it—more OUTGOING.

Oh, To Be Fascinating!

About the same time I failed to make cheerleader, my mother presented me with a book called Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin (1963). It was the Bible for young women coming of age in the Culture of Personality. I was baffled by the book back then, but now it makes perfect sense. Susan Cain explains that the forceful, “masterful personality” was primarily meant for business men, “but women were urged to work on a mysterious quality called ‘fascination.’”

It remained a mysterious quality to me.

One night I came home from a party early (as usual), only to be confronted by a vexed and worried mother who urged me to stay out longer, socialize more, become more, yes, outgoing. She sat me down. We talked about a particular boy. I explained that I had his attention, but couldn’t think of anything to say to him. She welled up in frustration and said too loudly, “So, you just sat there and said nothing? Like a bump on a log?” Great, I thought. Now I’m a bump on a log. That’s about as far from fascinating as you can get.

So I began to think that, yes, I must have an inferiority complex. I am unfascinating. I am flawed to the core. Who could save me? Was I doomed to be a bump on a log forever?

Religion. Maybe that would save me. It was supposed to save people. And it did. I found great comfort in my youth group, and even though it was very social, it still allowed me to go off alone on retreats and read the Bible and think about things. There I was considered “spiritual” rather than “maladjusted,” clearly an improvement. And the boys at church were more approachable, too, at least some of them. (Susan Cain says that introverts, particularly sensitive introverts, are often drawn to religion and philosophy.)

Church, back then, was not as extrovert as it is today. I didn’t have to go around hugging everyone and clapping and greeting my neighbors in the pew each Sunday. I could sit and think and dream and pray. That was paradise, albeit, short-lived. After Sunday’s respite into quietness, it was Monday again, and back to the social pressures of school, where the Pep Club alone forced me to become a philosopher, an existentialist, a “Hell is other people” sort of young thinker (I’ve always had a soft spot for Sartre).

Tonic for the Shy?

I Love Lucy re-runs were my favorite after school activity. But alas, even television was infiltrated by the Extrovert Ideal. Remember Lucy’s “Vitameatavegamin” commercial? This tonic not only promised to cure those who were “tired, run-down, and listless,” but also made you socially courageous. Yes, it could make you popular! She spooned out a dose while saying into the camera, “Are you unpopular? Do you poop out at parties?” All you needed, of course, was Vitameatavegamin. And, as she kept spooning the alcohol-laden syrup into her mouth, it became slurred into: “Are you unpoopular? Do you pop out at parties?” Who can forget that?

I still love Lucy (one of favorite all-time extroverts), but do we really need a tonic made with 23% alcohol to cure our natural-born tendencies to read Jane Eyre in our room rather than jump and scream at pep rallies? And, in an updated version of Vitameatavegamin, do we really need those high-priced drugs that promise to cure our “social anxiety”?

As Cain points out, we have not gotten past the Culture of Personality. In fact, it’s worse—much worse. We’re like the Culture of Personality on steroids. Today, it’s hard to find a job where you don’t have to be or pretend to be an extrovert. The Culture of Personality is everywhere: business schools, churches, educational philosophies. You can’t escape the tentacles of the Extrovert Ideal. (Fascinating Womanhood is in its sixth edition.)

Shy Philosophers and Poets

No wonder I’m a Whiteheadian. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was not only a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, but also a famously shy introvert, according to Jerome Kagan in Galen’s Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. As Cain points out, in Kagan’s Harvard studies with children, he compares one thoughtful, shy child named Tom, who wants to be scientist, to T.S. Eliot and Whitehead, both of whom were also shy as children, and so grew up to choose the “life of the mind.”

I find comfort here. For here we see that shy children, if not forced to be “outgoing” by well-meaning parents and teachers, can grow up be quite bold in their own introverted way. Whitehead wrote Process and Reality at Harvard just as the Culture of Personality was picking up steam. But he evidently did not pay attention to the Zeitgeist. Rather than seek popularity, Whitehead quietly and persistently forged a bold new path in philosophy—breaking apart Cartesian dualism and issuing in a “philosophy of organism” for the interconnected quantum world in which we now live. This philosophy cut against the grain of the more popular trend of analytic philosophy of the time.

Shy T.S. Eliot also went on to do bold things in the literary world. The famous poet was, in fact, highly influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy (see his book Notes Towards a Definition of Culture) and like Whitehead, resisted the Culture of Personality with the power of a pen.

Spirituality for the Shy

As a spiritual person, what I like best about the famously introverted Whitehead, is that he presents a view of God that does not fit into the Culture of Personality. No wonder process theology is a minority view. For Whitehead’s God is simply not “outgoing” enough. No Master of the Universe here! Rather than having a “masterful personality,” his God “dwells in the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.” (Process and Reality, 343). I think this view of God and the world brings out the more nobler aspects of religious thought.

My mother would question this. She would probably consider Whitehead a maladjusted type. My mom would have waved away his famous Principia Mathematica and his geeky friends like Bertrand Russell and ask, “But did you go out for football? How many extra-curricular activities did you attend in college?” What if Whitehead had not been born in nineteenth-century Britain? What if he had been brought up in the Culture of Personality in America? What if his mother had given him Vitameatavegamin or some other magical tonic to cure him of living too much in his head? What if his mother had forced him to take a Dale Carnegie course at the YMCA so he could better “win friends and influence people”?

Good Heavens! Just try to imagine a world without our introverts: A universe devoid of many of our greatest philosophers and scientists and religious thinkers and writers and poets and humanitarians; a world without van Gogh, Chopin, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi–it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Inspiration from an Extrovert

Susan Cain is my hero, and a hero for all of us who always felt hopelessly flawed by our quietness. It’s time for us to reclaim our self-esteem, our sense of purpose in the world, equal in every way to our more fascinating friends.

I think our extrovert friends would join us in our cause, because many of them, too, question the dubious morality of the Culture of Personality, which blithely—while we weren’t looking—usurped the Culture of Character. Take one of the most famous extroverts in recent history, Martin Luther King, Jr. He used his natural charisma, not for charisma’s sake, not for the sake of the Culture of Personality, but for this one thing: that all children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Just thinking of MLK gives me courage. Yes, it’s time for introverts to unite and make our stand. We need to tell the world that we refuse to be treated as second-class personalities! (Maybe we could meet in the library.)