Suzanne Tobias

While society prizes extroverts, introverts are quietly solving its problems

Parent-teacher conference time at my children’s high school is nothing if not consistent.

We look at class schedules, check out the map and survey the crowd. We head to the nearest teacher or the one with the shortest line. We sit down, look at grades, review highs and lows.

My husband and I usually divide and conquer. He goes with our son, and I with our daughter, and we all meet up afterward to review what was said and go out for burgers. Thanks to e-mail and online grade books, nothing’s ever too much of a surprise.

Neither is the comment that nearly every teacher makes when describing Hannah, now a senior:

“She’s quiet.”

Since Hannah was a kindergartner – and even before that, at her Montessori preschool – teachers have told us our daughter is reflective and serious, that she prefers to work on her own rather than in groups, that she seldom participates with the enthusiastic vigor of some of her classmates. She’s smart and creative, a deep thinker but not a performer, opting to express herself in low-key ways.

Over the years some teachers have noted this as a challenge – or worse yet, a failing – and warned that she needs to come out of her shell. For one thing, participation grades depend on speaking up in class. Beyond that, they say, charisma is a life skill: In college or the workplace, outgoing beats reclusive every time.

They’re right, of course. According to Susan Cain, author of the best-seller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” Americans in particular live with a value system you might call “the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is a second-class personality trait,” Cain writes, “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

As someone who falls closer to Steve Martin than Mother Teresa on the extrovert-introvert spectrum, it took me years to recognize and appreciate the value of introversion, including my own child’s. Once I did, though – Cain’s book and her 2012 Ted Talk proved especially helpful – it became clear that our schools, workplaces and society in general really do tend to favor and reward extroverts.

That’s too bad. Because introverts – people who tend to feel their most creative and capable in quieter, low-key environments – always have been key to solving society’s problems. Think Abraham Lincoln, Cain says, or Mahatma Ghandi. Charles Darwin took long walks alone in the woods and continually turned down dinner party invitations. Henry David Thoreau sought inspiration in isolation.

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it is the air that they breathe,” Cain says. “Because when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.”

That’s not to say collaboration doesn’t matter, or that schools should eschew public speaking or group projects altogether. (Hannah and I both got a chuckle, though, out of a pie chart titled “What I Learned from Group Projects,” in which 95 percent of the circle was labeled “Trust no one!”)

“We need to be teaching kids to work together, for sure,” Cain said. “But we also need to teach them how to work on their own, because that is where deep thoughts come from.”

It’s OK to value the loud-talkers, the performers, the magnetic leaders and social butterflies. But there’s power, too, in quiet, and courage in speaking softly.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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