Monday, April 2, 2012

Introverts of the World Unite! (well, maybe in a newsgroup)

I believe it was through Google+ (not surprisingly) that I first discovered Susan Cain. The brief article was enough motivation to request her book from the library, and several months later (so many introverts using libraries?) I finally got a chance to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

It was not exactly surprising that, of the 20 questions designed to suggest whether one's personality tends more toward the introvert or extrovert end of the spectrum, I answered "true" every time. I already knew why I was reading the book. But it didn't take long for Cain to reveal some interesting connections in my own psyche--again, not earth-shattering surprises, but worthy of reflection nonetheless.



Extroversion is in our DNA--literally, according to some psychologists. The trait has been found to be less prevalent in Asia and Africa than in Europe and America, whose populations descend largely from migrants of the world. It makes sense, say these researchers, that world travelers were more extroverted than those who stayed home--and that they passed on their traits to their children and their children's children.
This is an interesting observation as it tries to explain why Americans favor extroversion, but more interesting to me was the general consideration that extroverts are more likely to migrate, while introverts stay put. A fairly defining trait in my life has been my affinity for staying put, but I never really thought much about its possible connection to introversion. I don't suppose I would, considering that my prime counterexamples are my parents and maternal grandparents, none of whom would I categorize as extroverts. But throughout most of my adult life I've struggled with this migratory tendency in my family, and in the past few years I've come to hold as a fundamental value the love of place. For me, rootedness just seems more naturally human, which is not to say that there aren't other, competing impulses that deserve attention, or that it doesn't sometimes take a lower priority. But in general, I view placelessness as an anomaly, whose popularity has come only in the past century or so. This has an interesting coincidence with the next connection:



[Dale] Carnegie's journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century . . . . America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality--and opened up a Pandora's Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover.

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. . . .

But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. . . .

The rise of industrial America was a major force behind this cultural evolution. The nation quickly developed from an agricultural society of little houses on the prairie to an urbanized, "the business of America is business" powerhouse. . . .

Americans found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers. "Citizens" morphed into "employees," facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom they had no civic or family ties.
Along with my developing conviction that humans are better off attached to a place, I have tended to favor the ideal of a more agrarian life. As Cain notes, the major shift came around the beginning of the 20th century, which is not precisely when industrialization took hold, but still marks a watershed in the development of American culture. I would suggest that increased mobility played a critical role in this shift, as well as the apparent wealth generated by industry of the previous generation. Once people had the disposable income to buy and industry had the increased capacity to produce consumer goods, salesmanship became the new driving force behind cultural norms--a trend that Cain highlights as crucial in the rise of Personality, or idealized extroversion.

The Culture of Character, on the other hand, seems to have no particular origin. I would say that "serious, disciplined, and honorable" are traits favored by just about every traditional society--certainly those we would characterize as European, whether Christian or Classical. I realize I'm probably biased here by my introvert tendencies, but my gut reaction is that it would be downright immoral to deny these qualities their place in society. I'm not trying to impugn the masses of people who have bought into the Culture of Personality, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone, when faced with the two Cultures in the stark contrast of their ideals, favoring the shift toward Personality.



"The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion," McHugh explained. "The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It's a constant tension for many introverts that they're not living that out. And in a religious world, there's more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn't feel like 'I'm not doing as well as I'd like.' It feels like 'God isn't pleased with me.'"
My own thinking about place and culture developed concurrently (and perhaps a bit paradoxically) with a move away from my Evangelical roots toward Traditional Christianity. I won't deny that I always felt conflicted about this process, since in a way I was doing the very thing I criticized--looking for contentment by uprooting and settling somewhere else. Just because it was an intellectual and spiritual uprooting didn't make it any less of a contradiction. But I tolerated the move, because I was convinced that Evangelicalism itself was part of the problem. As an American movement, it was perhaps inevitable that it would embrace the Culture of Personality. But even this, I think, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Bereft of a stable Tradition, Evangelicalism has tended to mimic whatever trends are popular in the culture at large. It earnestly tries to be biblically based, but its growth strategies, leadership models, and vision statements have long reflected those found in the business world.

I would be interested to read McHugh's book after this, since he writes as an insider. I don't think Cain exhibits a particularly precise familiarity with Evangelicalism, but I don't expect her to, either. The basic point of this brief section, which is captured in the quote above, I would consider fundamentally sound. Again, it wasn't news to me, but reading this section of the book shed some light on remarks that were made by the leadership of our former church, shortly before I began the formal process of conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy:
We sense that Trevor’s desire for conversion may well be based on mixed impulses. We don’t say this in any sense of condemnation, but just as an observation that is in accord with biblical instruction concerning human nature: Specifically, we can see how Orthodoxy appeals to both the core identity of who Trevor is (scholar, teacher, mystic (as image bearer and new creation)); but we also sense that it appeals to aspects of woundedness, both personal and generational that should be acknowledged. . . . we are concerned that Orthodox practice also has the potential to allow someone to continue to be disengaged from community life. Our sense is that God would have Trevor grow in his capacity for relational engagement (when in intimate personal settings). Historically, we have observed that Trevor is very engaging and transparent by email (and in his blog) – but fails to engage at a similar level in person. Thus, our concern expressed in this point is that Orthodoxy could be a place for Trevor to hide from necessary life change.
Five years of distance and a little more learning about personality have given me a slightly different perspective on these remarks than I had initially. They acknowledge my core identity (clumsily summarized as "scholar, teacher, mystic"), but then go on to implicate my "capacity for relational engagement" as an aspect of "woundedness." What they describe (and what they don't) are classical traits of an introverted personality--a preference for written communication, and favoring substantive discussion over small talk. The latter point isn't clear from this paragraph, but in associated discussion I was told, "there is no such thing as small talk," meaning that it is a necessary part of community life and that my failure to excel at it reflects a corresponding failure in my ability to engage. I would point out as well that how one defines "relational engagement (when in intimate personal settings)" depends heavily on one's personality and perspective. As an introvert, and without knowing what the speaker intended, I would generally assume that it refers to one-on-one interaction with someone you already know on an intimate level. But since the words were written by someone who had no way of knowing how I performed in such settings (our interactions had never risen above the level of small talk, and that very clumsily done), I'm inclined to think they met something very different here by the words "intimate" and "personal"--something more akin to "informal" and "casual"--which, as I say, would make it primarily a criticism of my introverted personality.

None of this is to say that all Evangelicals are so blatantly biased against introversion. But I would turn the argument around and charge that Evangelicalism uniquely fosters a preference for extroversion--that it often becomes "a place for [extroverts] to hide from necessary life change." The Orthodox Church (and I suspect the Roman Catholic and other forms of traditional Christianity) certainly makes more room for introversion, but I would call it a healthy balance. There is room for both extroverts and introverts each to play their own roles. Extroverts are encouraged to learn silence, and introverts are discouraged from misanthropy--neither type should give free rein to its negative tendencies. And this is precisely what we should expect from catholic Christianity--a place for everyone.

I never considered my introversion a fundamental reason for my conversion, but it certainly does play its role, as it does in my views on society. I think it's healthy to think in such terms now and then, as long as it doesn't involve reducing everything to one subconscious cause.


  1. I'm an introvert. We should get T-shirts! Actually, I find coffee hour to be exhausting some days. Never had to deal with that in the PoMo movement. It doesn't take that long to eat a donut...

  2. Well, there is that. But I've never noticed that anyone objected if I sat outside by myself, and clearly no one feels pressure to talk to people they don't already know. (Not always a good thing.) Julie thinks that Holy Cross has a lot more introverts than normal. I suspect she's probably right, since there's such a high proportion of converts. Besides being refugees from extrovertist denominations, I think you often have to be kind of bookish even to find out what Orthodoxy is.

  3. We sit outside sometimes as well. If it's been a particularly long week, the noise just gets to me. I was surprised last night, after a fairly low key day on my part, that the noise after the PSL really got to me. But there were a lot of children expressing themselves rather loudly at the time...

  4. And we should do something about that "not talking to people you don't already know" thing. There are some people who make it their duty to do so, but I wonder if we shouldn't have some folks dedicated to making newcomers feel welcome. But that starts to feel a little fake-y to me..