Monday, January 16, 2012

Quiet! Can't you see I'm creating over here?

Our friend John has naturally very curly hair.  A parent in his kids' school always insists that John has a perm.  When John says, ‘No, my hair’s just like this,” the guy invariably retorts, “No. That’s a perm.”   They’ve had this exchange multiple times, and what makes us all laugh when we ask for the story to be re-told, is the guy’s certainty that he’s right about John’s hair and that John’s wrong.  Plus that John's just the nicest person on earth, and this guy's kind of a tool.  The guy’s not being funny.  He is convinced that he’s right.  And not just about John’s hair.  The same guy also asked another friend, upon hearing his thick accent, where he was from.  When the friend answered, “Boston,” the guy said, “No.  That can’t be right.”  There’s something inexhaustibly funny about these stories – that this guy has it wrong but is so convinced that he’s right.  Makes me laugh every time.

I wonder if we all have something like this, something about us that when we tell people about it, they argue to the contrary though probably less absurdly.  For me, it’s always when I tell people that, really, I’m terribly shy.  Unless I’m talking to another secret shy person (in which case the response is a relieved, “Me too!  Aren’t we such good fakers?”), the response is always an emphatic yet sympathetic, “No, you’re not,” as if being shy were something terrible, and then comes the list of things I do or have done that proves I’m really not shy at all.

But I swear it’s true: my hair’s just like this and I really am from Boston!

What I realize now, having had the opportunity to read Quiet by Susan Cain is that while “shy” is one way to describe my experience of being me – the me who would rather stay home and read a book than go to a party, the me who gets up at 4:30 am in order to have quiet time in which not to have to talk to another soul and just commune with my own thoughts, follow my curiosity around the interwebs – that me could be more accurately described as an introvert, and better yet as “a socially poised introvert.”  Introversion is about how much external stimulation you need or can stand – those of us who are introverts prefer less and require some degree of solitude to re-charge.  [If you’re interested in where you fall, take this test.  Yay, tests!] Introversion and extroversion have a biological basis, traits that manifest when we’re babies.  Introverts are physiologically more reactive, which manifests in such terrific ways as being bigger droolers than extroverts, for example; our systems are more sensitive and respond more intensely to outside stimuli like lemon juice on the tongue. That’s right, I’m shy *and* I drool.   How you like me now?

But really, how nice does socially poised introvert sound?  Everyone responds to “shy” likes it’s herpes, something you don’t want to have and certainly don’t want anyone to know you have.  But “socially poised introvert,” on the other hand, sounds good.  I can’t wait to hear the inevitable, “A wha’?” and then launch the explanation.

For those of you not attending that particular cocktail party at which I will hold forth about “socially poised introvert” while dreaming of being at home in my robe and slippers with puppy and book, here’s a section of Quiet that really zinged for me.

From 1956 to 1962, an era best remembered for its ethos of stultifying conformity, the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a series of studies on the nature of creativity.  The researchers sought to identify the most spectacularly creative people and then figure out what made them different from everybody else.  They assembled a list of architects, mathematicians, scientist, engineers, and writers, and invited them to Berkeley for a weekend of personality tests, problem-solving experiments, and probing questions.

Then the researchers did something similar with members of the same professions whose contributions were decidedly less groundbreaking.
One of the most interesting findings, echoed by later studies, was that the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts.  They were interpersonally skilled but “not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.”  They described themselves as independent and individualistic.  As teens, many had been shy and solitary.
These findings don’t mean that introverts are always more creative than extroverts, but they do suggest that in a group of people who have been extremely creative throughout their lifetimes, you’re likely to find a lot of introverts.
… a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage – they prefer to work independently, and solitude is often crucial to creativity and productivity.  As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to  work.”  In other words, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head.  (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts.  William Wordsworth described him as “A mind forever/Voyaging through strange seas of Thought alone.”) (74)
Nina (the brunette) undoubtedly spoke
not one word to Santa
On the socially poised part of this equation, I want to give thanks to my childhood friend, Nina, whose greater shyness than mine forced me to begin my lifelong process of faking it socially.  Nina was the kind of shy where she wouldn’t speak even one word.  Not one. Lips completely sealed.  I’m told that I served as her interpreter, spoke for her in situations where her input was needed, or at least so our mothers say.  [She grew out of this and is now one of the most gregarious people I know, worked as a park ranger, so clearly talks to strangers now.]  

As the oldest of three children, it also fell to me many times to set aside my own awkwardness and perform, for the benefit of my sisters, to “set a good example” as I was so often admonished.  This was complicated by the fact that my given name is difficult for English-only speakers, another factor making me want to evade notice.  Because of all of this, thanks to all of this, I learned to be a really good faker, to seem comfortable in situations I’d rather escape, to speak when I’d rather disappear.

But it all comes back to quiet, in the end.  In the end, when my time at the party has been served, then truly I get to come back to what I craved the whole time I was there – the comfort of the big chair in my office, with a book or my laptop (or best ever: both!), puppy, some tea, the gorgeous view out the window, and time to think and dream and consider the experience I just had, tell its story.

And guess what?  I’ve often wondered how I could be so terribly shy and private and yet be so bla-bla-bla online.  “Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read, to say that they can express the ‘real me’ online, and to spend more time in online discussions.  They welcome the chance to communicate digitally.  The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.  The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world.” Well, of course!

There’s so much more to Quiet, the book.  It comes out on January 28th and I’m recommending it highly, not just for introverts who want to feel less like weirdos in a culture that really places high value on extroverted traits, but for everyone who wants a chance to think about why some of us are the way we are and what we can learn from each other. And parents!  Parents should read this book, use the wisdom about introversion and extroversion to help their kids navigate.  Fortunately for me, my son and I are cut from the same cloth – we went together to an ice cream social at his school when he was in the 8th grade, got our ice cream and sat in a corner talking to each other, making that event, for ever more, the infamous Ice Cream Anti-Social (his words).  If we’d been of different dispositions, how helpful it would have been to me to know how to help him maximize his gifts to take his full and happy place at the table.

For a preview of some of the book, check out most of Chapter 3 republished in the New York Times as “The Rise of the New Groupthink." Or buy it.  Or hit me up and borrow my copy.  Just make sure you don’t mind my annotations, all my scribbled exclamations of recognition, Hey, there’s me.  There’s me again.  Such a good feeling that even when I’m sitting in my Quiet, I’m not alone.  A whole lot of other people are sitting here too, nodding their heads in acknowledgment of #9 below, avoiding chit chat in favor of dreaming big dreams in the quiet of their own heads.

Please note that as a contributor to From Left to Write, the virtual blogging bookclub, I received a free copy of the book for review -- so cool, right? Thanks, FLtW! Opinions are purely my own and are, like I said, opinions. Oh, and my hair is naturally wavy and I am not from Boston.  That part was lies.  The rest is all true.

Are you an introvert or extrovert?.Author Susan Cain explores how introverts can be powerful in a world where being an extrovert is highly valued. Join From Left to Write on January 19 as we discuss Quiet:The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. We'll also be chatting live with Susan Cain at 9PM Eastern on January 26. 


Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

There are many days where I want to curl up with a cup of coffee and a good book!

Janin said...

#9 Reminds me that I often have a book in hand as a way to try to stop people from visiting with me when what I really need is a chance to recharge. On the other hand, it amazes me how frequently it ends up being a conversation starter instead...

Ariane said...

Janin, thank you! I do the same and just realized that, on the flip side, I am *always* such a snoop when other people are reading something, trying to see the title on the spine, and sometimes EVEN striking up a conversation myself with them about their book, especially if it's something I loved. My crazy-love for books is sometimes stronger than my love for quiet. ;>

Taylor said...

I am *so* with you on this one - I'll be chatty all day online, but in actuality all I want to do is curl up quietly by myself! And please don't make me go anywhere to interact with anyone - aack!

Marianne Thomas said...

I love your son's sense of humor. ;-)

Great post!

Karen said...

Nobody who knows me would ever guess that I'm shy...ever. But, I am, at a minimum, until I get my bearings. I know there are different degrees of shyness and while I'm not extreme there, it still has its effects.

Alicia said...

I'm the oldest in my family too and always felt as if I had to set the example for my siblings. I know I'm an introvert, but an introvert with lust for the qualities of an extrovert, so I pushed myself to excel in high school in sports, cheerleading, yearbook staff, etc. Even now I force myself to go dancing and to events but the whole time like you I would rather be cuddled up on my couch with my laptop or a good book.
Excellent post!

Marlene said...

Such a good post, even with the drool!

Joy Weese Moll said...

Interesting point about being the oldest requiring more extroversion than might normally be natural.