Now that the holiday season is winding down, I thought I’d take on a more academic topic, especially before the library book on this subject is overdue. Have you noticed lately that the extrovert represents for many the model for the ideal person? I began to realize this a few years ago, when I opened a magazine at the hair salon and found the Kardashian siblings shouting at me from every page.
“What do they do?” I asked my hair stylist.
“They have a reality TV show,” he said.
“But what do they do?”
From what I could gather from the scandal sheets, they spend money, party, spend more money, get into arguments with each other, spend more money, and turn their daily lives into TV-worthy, soap-opera drama. And somehow what they say and do seems to matter to a lot of people who look up to them for their uninhibited lifestyle.
The Kardashians are hardly the only ones who get by on the basis of their lack of fear of being on center stage, their ability to act without reflection, and their desire for constant stimulation. They fit into the class of people we call extroverts. This is the same group that others hope to join by paying a lot of money for self-help books and “How to Become a Winner” workshops.
Extraversion wasn’t always the ideal, says author Susan Cain, a semi-introvert herself, in her book, “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Earlier in the twentieth century “character” was what defined successful people. Words used to convey ‘character’ included “duty, work, honor, reputation, manners, integrity.” ‘Character’ could also mean rigidity, religiosity, and moralism. The value that replaced ‘character’ was ‘personality,’ which meant “magnetic,” “stunning,” “dominant,” forceful” and “energetic.” The problem with a switch of this nature was that the character attributes often were promoted at home, school and church and seemed attainable by anyone who worked at them, but traits like ‘magnetism’ were “trickier to acquire.”
Cain argues that the ‘personality’ qualities became important as people moved from farms and small towns to larger communities where family and reputation were no longer enough to get ahead or be accepted. She learned from her research that the majority in this country consider actors, business people, and politicians who dominate a social or work situation and who are burbling over with energy more capable than their quiet peers and give them higher regard.
‘Personality’ was one of two terms in this book from the fifties that caused an immediate flashback to my childhood. The other was ‘inferiority complex.’ My mother divided the people she knew into those who “had personality” and those who lacked it. Unfortunately, I fell into the group that missed out on ‘personality,’ but that was probably because she could barely detect signs of life during my sullen teenage years when I mostly grunted and made excuses to spend time with my books and not her friends. Until I read this book I also had forgotten about ‘inferiority complexes,’ another term my mom and her peers threw around a lot. People with this condition were not outgoing and sociable. They were never talkative and cheery. Instead, she considered them “mouse-like,” lying low on the outskirts of the group and occasionally squeaking.
The terminology faded with my mother’s generation, but the notion that being the center of attention is superior to not hogging the stage, extended beyond coffee klatch conversations and movie magazines to the corporate world and even religious communities. So what is an introvert to do in this outgoing world? My next blog (which I have to write before the book’s Jan. 2 due date) will talk about the contributions introverts have made to science and the arts and why introversion is a valuable trait.