Some twenty-odd years ago, I moved out to Southern California from New Jersey and set about finding a job. My wide-eyed self was more than a little delighted when I landed an interview with the Walt Disney Company: the Mouse, the Big Cheese, the place where wishes come true! During the interview process, a Human Resources representative asked me if I was extroverted. “We tend not to hire introverts here,” she said. I nodded sagely; quite understandable–don’t want any of those types around.
In my head, I was thinking, “This idiot doesn’t even know what an introvert is.” I did not get that job, nor did I get the next one I interviewed for, dashing my dreams of free entry into Disneyland and getting paid minimum wage to brainwash children worldwide. I guess what went wrong for me is the HR rep and hiring manager didn’t buy my act. Like many introverts, I pretended to be more extroverted than I am to fit in and potentially be hired into a culture that places significant value on the “Extrovert Ideal.” Susan Cain defines the Extrovert Ideal as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”
Extroverts certainly have appealing personalities–they are inclined to action, certainty, and risk-taking. They are great to have at parties. I know there are times when I truly enjoy hanging out with an extroverted friend just because I know I won’t have to work too hard at the conversation and I definitely don’t have to worry about awkward pauses. But then at some point I need her to stop talking and go home so I can decompress by reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle.
Actual bookmark used while reading Quiet
My point is there is absolutely nothing wrong extroversion, but there is something wrong with the assumption that only extroverts have something to offer. What makes the HR rep’s comments so perplexing is that I’m pretty sure Disney employs more than a few engineers, a career that typically attracts a high percentage of introverts. Additionally, introverts tend to be inventors, artists, and creators. J.K. Rowling considers herself an introvert, as does Larry Page of Google fame and Steven Spielberg of ruining the end of Minority Report fame. Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Dr. Seuss were all introverts. So was J.M. Barrie, who didn’t exactly work for Disney, but did write a play that became an animated Disney film.
Barrie was even thoughtful enough to give them a head start on offending people!
I could go on and on about the contributions that introverts have made to society; fortunately, Susan Cain does more than that in her book. She starts by exploring the extrovert ideal and even braves a Tony Robbins leadership conference to try to understand what makes extroverts tick. I could barely get through this chapter without breathing into a paper bag, so I appreciate Cain’s willingness to take one for our overly sensitive team. She talks to students at Harvard Business School, an institute for higher learning in which it’s notoriously difficult to survive unless you can at least put on a convincing mask of extroversion. Again and again, the message that she comes away with is that, in an American business environment, it’s not the best ideas that win, but the best presenters.
I say American business environment because, as Cain discovers, there is such a thing as “soft power” in other cultures. Cain speaks to Asian American high school and college students who have a very different way of viewing their education. One student describes her class at UCLA: “I would look at my peers while they were talking nonsense, and the professors were so patient, just listening to everyone. . . .I remember being amazed. It was a linguistics class, and that’s not even linguistics the students are talking about! I thought, ‘Oh, in the U.S., as soon as you start talking, you’re fine.’ ” From this point of view, “talking nonsense” is seen as disrespectful and a waste of everyone’s time. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I can relate to this, so I’ll let Al Pacino do it.
Cain also explores biology and brain chemistry (two things I love!). She discusses the difference between temperament and personality: temperament being the inborn, biologically based behavioral and emotional patterns; personality being the complex characteristics that emerge when temperament is combined with cultural influence and personal experience. For example, some babies have been found to be highly-reactive, meaning they are extra sensitive to new stimulation. While it may seem counterintuitive, these babies, who thrash and wail at new stimuli, are more likely to grow up to be introverts. Their amygdala is super active, which leads to a higher heart rate, dilated eyes, and more of the stress hormone cortisol. This also suggests that high-reactive kids (and presumably adults) feel things more.
So much about this book resonated with me, and since I’m guessing a fair share of readers on this site are introverts, I’m betting it will resonate with you as well. At times I found it painful to hear about people’s experiences trying to overcome their quiet side to fit in, but overall it’s comforting to realize that there are so many of us out there.
As for Disney, maybe they were right to hire a more extroverted, fun-loving person for that position. Extroverts are creative too, right? Then again, given Disney’s output in the late nineties, maybe they were forced to reconsider.
Yeah, might want to review your hiring qualifications, Mouse.