The unique powers of introverts

The softer spoken have negotiation skills that would shut an extroverted loudmouth up

Inside the quiet revolution

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Talkative people are rated as smarter, better looking, and more interesting, but that’s not necessarily what our culture needs right now, argues a former Wall Street lawyer whose new book urges introverts not to embrace the ideals of extroversion but to stay true to their inherently thoughtful natures.

Besides, there is zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas, writes Susan Cain in a fascinating 2012 book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Cain recounts her own struggle to fit in with extroverts at Harvard Law School. Sometimes she got so nervous on her way to class she threw up. Once, at 9 a.m., she gulped Baileys Irish Cream from a sports bottle to calm her nerves before addressing a group.

Cain notes with dismay that our culture has become so obsessed with the idea of speaking up that even the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “considers the fear of public speaking to be a pathology—not an annoyance, not a disadvantage, but a disease.” She asks: “Should we become so proficient that we can dissemble without anyone suspecting? Must we learn to stage-manage our voices, gestures and body language until we can tell—sell—any story we want? These seem venal aspirations.”

Cain describes an epiphany she had at work one day. A senior lawyer went on vacation, leaving her in charge of an important negotiation. On one side of the table was a manufacturing company about to default on its loan; on the other side, a syndicate of bankers and their general counsel. Cain felt like hiding under the table but reminded herself that introverts have unique powers in negotiation. For one thing, she knew she would probably be better prepared. “Introverts work more slowly and deliberately,” she explains. “They like to focus deeply on one task at a time and often they have mighty powers of concentration.”

Also, because she is mild-mannered, Cain knew she could take a strong, even aggressive, position while still coming across as reasonable. When the negotiating began, Cain started to ask questions, “lots of them,” she recalls. And she listened to the answers, “which, no matter what your personality, is crucial to strong negotiation.” Eventually, her simple questions shifted the mood in the room. “The bankers stopped speechifying and dominance-posing” and the two sides started to have a real conversation. Finally a deal was struck, and the next morning, the lead lawyer for the bankers called Cain and offered her a job. He had never seen anyone so nice and so tough at the same time.

Cain’s research shows that extroversion wasn’t always the ideal. At the turn of the 20th century, the most popular self-help book was a manual called Character: The Grandest Thing in the World. It tells the story of a timid girl who gave her meagre earnings to a beggar, then rushed off before anyone saw what she’d done. “Her virtue,” writes Cain, “was derived not only from her generosity but also from her wish to remain anonymous.”

By the 1920s, self-help books switched direction from inner virtue to outer charm. “Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.” By the 1940s, Harvard’s provost declared the school should reject the “sensitive, neurotic type” in favour of the “healthy, extrovert kind.”

Today, Harvard offers tips on in-class participation. One business school student remembers the advice: “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 per cent, say it as if you believe it 100 per cent. It’s better to get out there and say something than to never get your voice in.”

In the end, Cain advises introverts to use their powers of “persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity,” and heralds the arrival of social media. “Introverts say they can express ‘the real me’ online,” reports Cain. “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.”

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