My friend and colleague excitedly showed me the books she had just purchased. One of them was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. She and I sit across from each other at work. Our cubicles are hidden in the very back corner of the office.
I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In which was an immense help and pep talk for a girl who doesn’t have any professional ladies (besides her peers) in her life. I started evaluating everything through the Lean In lens. Was I leaning in? Was I not leaning in because I was quiet? I’m usually the quietest person in our meetings. I don’t say much but if there is something I feel strongly about (like using serial commas, removing the possessive s after apostrophes, a particular spelling) I will not give up and can be extremely stubborn. Having read Lean In, I noticed how much my male colleague spoke in our meetings. I started to wonder what Sheryl would say. Then I realized that no one was talking over me or telling me to be quiet. I didn’t have anything to say at that particular moment. Being quiet does not necessarily mean I am not leaning in or participating at the table. This is not a comment against Sandberg, this is about me and how I perceive myself.
Quiet establishes that shyness and introversion are not synonyms. Cain writes that “introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” (12) Needing some time away from groups and stimuli allows us to rest and prepare to interact with other people. One can be the life of the party, the loudest in the room, but at some point, the party ends, and the vivacious need to go home, decompress, rest up, and recharge to return to the world. Having worked retail for years, I can attest to forcing a cheery attitude, greeting each customer genuinely, chatting about their inane purchases, and wishing them a nice day. I did this for eight hours a day. But then I’d go home and grunt hello to my roommate who also grunted hello (he is the general manager of a night club) and we’d sit on the couch watching tv in silence. Four hours later, he turned on the radio, showered, and got dressed. He’d talk to me, spray on his cologne, put on his jewelry, and prepare to greet each customer as though he hadn’t seen them in years, making jokes and catching up. Two hours after that, I’d get ready and go to the club. I’d hug the bouncers, kiss them on the cheek, chat with the doorgirl, walk to the bar, hug Randy (my roommate), he’d introduce me to some people, we would chat, then I’d move to coat check to chat with another friend, then I’d move from person to person, highlighting any insane things that happened that week. This was my routine for years, two of which included grad school with reduced work hours. When I was at home, I would sit and read quietly, resting, and not answering the phone. Sometimes I was so comfortable I would elect not to go out but my friends would harass me and so I would go out of guilt, and always be happy that I did.
Cain describes “the ‘rubber band theory’ of personality. We are like rubber bands at rest. We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much.” (118) Everyone was jealous that I was Randy’s roommate. I think everyone assumed that he was his fun sarcastic self 24 hours a day. What they didn’t realize was that Randy and I got along so well because we could sit in silence for hours. We could recognize each other’s moods and leave one another alone when needed.
I recently noticed that I don’t like to work in groups. I do not enjoy collaborations but a lot of my colleagues do. I wondered if this meant that I was a control freak or unable to deal with criticism. Cain writes “introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation.” (74) I realized that it is ok to prefer to work alone. I do not mind criticism; my writing always improves with at least one editor but I do not like to show anything until I feel ready. The other people in my department seem to enjoy collaborating and talking through a project. I like to go to my desk, work on it alone, and then share it with other people and get their feedback.
it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Delibertate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performace, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly. (81)
Oftentimes colleagues want to work something through with me. They need my help writing something. I am happy to help and appreciate the trust others place in me but I feel that I only contribute moral support. My mind feels a bit sluggish and it always feels like the other person is doing the bulk of the work as I sit there, struggling to perform with someone next to me. However, the second that I am alone, sentences come to me and I can make order out of truncated phrases and dead copy. I am able to focus and finish the task.
Quiet‘s subtitle, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking validates solitude and silence. We do not need to be the loudest person in the room to be heard. A barrage of words does not guarantee intelligence or favor. Being quiet does not indicate a lack of opinion or caring. Often I’ve wondered about the duality of my private life. I have loved reading and club life equally. Both allow you to sink into another reality. And both allow you to be alone, even if you are surrounded by people, be it a coffee shop, library, bar, or club. Quiet indicates that shyness is not the same as introversion.
Susan Cain. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Broadway Paperbacks: New York, 2012.