Fame for the sake of fame allows the likes of Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen to not only climb onto the stage but to have an audience. Was it always this way?
No, says Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” She makes the case that society began revering and rewarding extroverts over introverts relatively recently. And if her analysis is right, there are serious implications for our system of self-governing and for the way our business world works.
As Ms. Cain told NPR, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century, “when we had the rise of big business. Suddenly, people were flocking to cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations, at job interviews and on sales calls.”
The culture changed, Ms. Cain says, from one that valued character to one that values personality. “During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking,” she says. “Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character. … But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.”
The start of the 20th century also saw the rise of movies and movie stars. “Part of people’s fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them and bring with them to their own jobs,” Ms. Cain says.
As work changed from a place where an employee’s value could be measured in terms of how many soles he or she sewed onto a shoe, for example, to one where more subjective measures of productivity and contribution held sway, the charismatic and humorous worker becomes the boss’s favorite. Even the office layout, where space per employee has shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet today, favors the extrovert who likes interaction.
“Introverts are much less often groomed for leadership positions,” Ms. Cain noted, even though some research shows introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes “because they’re more likely to let [their] employees run with their ideas, whereas an extroverted leader might, almost unwittingly, be more dominant and be putting their own stamp on things.”
The extrovert-introvert divide also plays out in the classroom, where the student who is quick to raise his or her hand with an answer — maybe the wrong answer — wins favor of the introvert who knows the right answer but says nothing.
And this election year, it’s obvious that extroverts win the attention of voters. Newt Gingrich has sailed far beyond what pundits predicted six months ago because he engages (provokes?) people. Mitt Romney may actually be an introvert who has learned to act like an extrovert. President Obama is an interesting case as well; he excels on stage, yet often seems aloof and disconnected when interacting with individuals.
Ms. Cain created a quiz to help people identify how introverted or extroverted they are. It’s worth taking, even if the news is that you are an introvert in a world dominated by extroverts. If so, you’re in good company. According to Ms. Cain, famous introverts include Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.K. Rowling and Steve Wozniak.