A World without Words/Cristian V/ Flickr

We all have that friend with the idealized “winner personality.” He lights up the room, and always has a smile on his face and a joke up his sleeve. Maybe you know this individual better as the big man on campus? Little Miss Popular? The big Kahuna?

America is closing the door on the idea of the trusty and moralistic introvert. Like everything else we touch, we’ve cashed in our personalities in favor of the “bigger is better” mentality. Extroversion has become the newest ingredient to the American dream.

However, since when has the loudest voice become the most correct? Since when has the biggest personality become best leader? When will we come back to valuing our introverts?

The Extrovert Ideal

In her novel Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain notes America’s transition from a society celebrating a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Americans shifted from favoring “serious, disciplined, and honorable” attributes for those which were “magnetic, energizing, and dominant.” Public perception, as opposed to private conduct, became the catalyst of one’s personality.

As a society, we continue to idolize the outgoing over the reticent. Our social butterflies are soaking up the sunshine and leaving our wallflowers out to dry.

Socratic Seminar

On the Meyers Briggs personality test, Socrates would have undoubtedly scored an E (for extrovert). The man died while talking. His teaching style, engaging his students in thought-provoking discussions, has been embraced by teachers worldwide, and subsequently, abused by students.

“Introverts listen and reserve themselves until they have something intelligible to add to the conversation.”

For anyone who has taken a dialogue driven course, it is common knowledge that your grade is largely dependent upon your participation. Nothing irks the introvert more than an eager and equivocating classmate who has much about nothing to add to the discussion…repeatedly.

Introverts listen and reserve themselves until they have something intelligible to add to the conversation (if that means losing a few point so be it).

Competing for airtime, the Socratic showcase highlights the lost value of quality over quantity in our increasingly extroverted society.

Fearless Leaders

The best ideas are not always the loudest; yet, it seems that these are the ideas that are being heard and implemented today. In our fast-paced world, we look for leaders that act quickly, but may do so at the expense of thinking things through thoroughly.

In a 2006 survey, 65% of senior corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership. Extroverts, on average, earn more and are more likely to be promoted than their introverted counterparts.

Historically, countless leaders of society from Gandhi to Lincoln were introverted. These leaders were revered for their calm, reflective, attentive personas. They said what they meant and meant what they said, but people forget these things. After all, that was seven score and twelve years ago…

business meeting
Business team/Penn State/Flickr

Does teamwork really make the dream work?

Elementary school teachers are trading in the traditional single desk set-up for four person pods. The Harvard Business School assigns each student to mandatory “Learning Teams.” Slice and dice all you want, but you’re bound to end up on some team or committee these days.

But honestly, does anyone really enjoy group projects? Forty-three years ago, Yale psychologist Irving Janis identified the dangers of group activity with the concept of “Groupthink.” This phenomenon illuminates how conformity can undermine productivity of the group and practicality of ideas. To avoid conflict, group members simply reserve their opinions leaving vital ideas and insights unstated resulting in a “deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.”

Boarding the Bus to Abilene

In a group setting, persuasive personalities can cause costly catastrophes. To avoid such issues, the military embraces a concept known as the “Bus to Abilene.”

Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral science at the U.S. Army War College explains:

“…a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go–I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our [the army’s] culture.”

Every culture of collaboration should have a red flag system in place. Then again, I guess boarding buses has never been an easy concept in America…

Productivity and Privacy

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when permitted to work in privacy. Psychologist Hans Eysenck elucidates how introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” Silence is golden.

For this reason, companies who once bought into the popular open floor plan are redivvying up the office space to give back the seclusion in which their employees thrive. Office design companies such Steelcase are rethinking ways to bring flexibility to the open-plan office by introducing new quiet spaces for those who need to escape the noise and recharge their batteries.

All in perspective

About one-third of Americans are introverts. The extrovert ideal is far from universal. Introverted or not, our quiet companions possess qualities from which we can all benefit: to pause, listen, and reflect.

In a world that can be utterly deafening, introverts gently remind us to follow the voice within rather than contribute to the cacophony which abounds each day. You might just find your thoughts carry an enticingly mellifluous tune if you choose to listen.