The quiet one

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2017.]




There he is. Sitting along the side of the class, with his head down. He could be a child or an adult — and certainly female too — but today at least this introvert has very little to say for himself.   


Familiar to most of us who spend any time in group situations at work or in a social setting, the introvert is not shy by definition. According to North American author (and self-acknowledged introvert) Susan Cain, shyness is actually about fear of being judged by others.


In fact, she argues, it’s just that “introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.” Extroverts — their opposites — are people who simply function better with a high level of social stimulation.


The wider point that Cain makes in her book on the subject is she believes that a bias has crept into “our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces. They are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation. And also we have this belief system right now that I call the new groupthink, which holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place.”


Myself, as someone who does not fit neatly into either category of the out-going chatterbox or the silent internal type (but rather seem to flit between the two depending on the moment) I confess to having largely failed in my attempts to run a fully inclusive classroom. When I was a secondary teacher I tried to democratically involve all of my students in being vocal but (like many educators) I was unaware of how best to do this or that some teenagers just do not want to speak if it can be avoided.


Teaching adults over the last few years I’ve learned that the prevailing culture in this part of the world too is clearly in favour of extroverts. I have even taught in companies where they believe that they do not have any introverts working alongside them as their colleagues. In the endless rounds of group meetings and chatty open plan offices introverts often fade into the background. It is as if being introverted is a mark of shame and sets someone apart as “not a team player.”  


But there is no good reason for this to be the case. As Susan Cain discovered, “when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely [ignored] for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful…and when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.” She gives the examples of Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs and genius children’s author Dr Seuss.


Of course, extroverts can and do lead us the wrong way though. Cain notes that “groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”


For some reason, the name Donald Trump immediately comes to mind.



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