Understanding Quiet Personalities

I recently read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012). Cain offers insights into the world of the introverted personality in a compelling and fascinating manner, and the book is worthwhile reading for anyone who finds themselves to be uncomfortable in social situations.

Personality structures are widely misunderstood. People tend to assume that there is something wrong with the quiet personality assuming that healthy people are socially active and talkative. Such assumptions are problematic for those of us who are reluctant social butterflies for a number of reasons.

Recently, a friend was sharing a story of a mutual friend, and how they often seemed totally oblivious to them when they spotted each other in the hallway, and stated they assumed the friend did not like them because they almost never said anything and had to be grabbed to get them to acknowledge their present. I nodded, because I had observed the same behavior from this individual, and truthfully, from many people including myself.

It surprised many people who have heard me speak in a class or at a conference, but I have always had a quiet and reticent personality, and speaking to even friends in an off-the-cuff situation, feels awkward at times. So, I have chosen periodically to pretend not to have noticed the other person. When I have forced myself to acknowledge them, my quiet friend that I previously mentioned, has said, “That is so Steve Carter.” I have learned to wear being Steve Carter as a badge of honor, not that I have any choice in the matter.

Cain (2012) points to a personality difference found in people who are high reactive, versus those that are low reactive. High reactive people are bombarded by stimulation all the time, internally and externally, and need time to recharge, and seek out the quiet on occasion by appearing asocial. Low reactive people in contrast seek stimulation, and find being alone to be boring. They feel compelled to seek out others and to engage in social small-talk, the bane of the quiet mind.

Brian Little, in delivering a TED Talk on the subject, https://youtu.be/qYvXk_bqlBk related his own quiet nature as a college professor, saying, “After teaching a class, I sometimes retire to a cubicle in the men’s room to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous extraverts.” I was surprised to have someone else acknowledge doing this because I had found myself using the same practice.

It should be pointed out that quiet people are not necessarily shy, they are just quiet, often quiet thinkers who wonder a great deal about the world around them, and need time alone to contemplate the mysteries they encounter.

Many famous people have been introverts including, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, Charles Darwin, Steve Wozniak, and scores of others. I should mention that introverts are not necessarily unable to speak publicly, certainly I consider myself to be quite good at public speaking and I enjoy it, but daily I need the sound of quiet to find myself again.

Cain (2012) referred to a culture of personality which consumed people in the twentieth century and led to the publication of how to books such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. These books often implied that those individuals who were quiet, needed to change to be more socially adept, a process that is very difficult for introverts.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being quiet. In fact, the quiet person, adequately motivated can be among the most influential of people. Rosa Parks and Thomas Paine are examples of those who contributed to great changes despite quiet natures.

For more information on the quiet personalities, read Cain’s book. It is worthwhile. See also Cain, Susan, "The power of introverts", TED. https://youtu.be/c0KYU2j0TM4

Cain, S. (2012), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Random House, New York.

Henry Carter