We’ve all heard about The Ugly American, perceived overseas as loud, brash, and boorish. Indeed we’re among the most extroverted people on earth, and that’s not a singularly positive trait. (More)

Quiet, Part I: The Extrovert Ideal and American Exceptionalism

This week Morning Feature looks at Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Today we begin with what she calls The Extrovert Ideal and her arguments for its roots in our genetic and cultural heritage. Tomorrow we’ll explore the advantages that introverts bring to groups and institutions. Saturday we’ll conclude with why introverts must learn to Ruck Up … and why extroverts must learn to Shut Up.

Susan Cain graduated from Princeton and then Harvard Law School, and was a Wall Street attorney for seven years before becoming a negotiating consultant. Her clients ranged from hedge fund managers to TV producers to college students negotiating their first salaries. Quiet is her first book.

“How come you don’t shout?”

The Ugly American – perceived in other countries as loud, brash, and often boorish – was a well-known meme long before Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s 1958 political novel. Indeed it hasn’t entirely faded:

The McCraighs love exploring new cultures and meeting the locals, but at one point during their travels, they were keeping a secret.

“When we first started traveling, closer to 2001, we were a bit nervous to reveal that we were American. We were more willing to say that we were Canadian until we warmed up to people,” McCraigh said. The couple was concerned by growing anti-American sentiment at the time, she explained.

When they did reveal their nationality, they would often be told they couldn’t possibly be American, said McCraigh, a 33-year-old telecom service executive.

“How come you are skinny?” the locals would ask, expecting plumper U.S. tourists. “How come you don’t shout?”

While people in other countries seem to be warming to American tourists, and while most Americans can learn to blend in when we travel overseas, researchers consistently find that European Americans are more extroverted than Asian Americans, and Cain argues that Americans are among the most extroverted people on earth.

“A mighty likeable fellow”

Cain purports to trace the rise of The Extrovert Ideal to the early 20th century. She posits a 19th century America grounded in what historian Warren Susman called the Culture of Character, giving way to a Culture of Personality as advertising, industrialization, and the books of Dale Carnegie and others combined to create a nation of people desperate to be outspoken and well-liked. She writes:

But by 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm – “to know what to say and how to say it,” as one manual put it. “To create a personality is power,” advised another. “Try in every way to have a ready command of the manners which make people think ‘he’s a mighty likeable fellow,” said a third.

Yet Cain later admits that her argument for a 20th century shift from character and inner virtue to personality and outer charm is more myth than fact:

Of course, the Extrovert Ideal is not a modern invention. 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 the 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.

And as she notes in a Richard Hofstadter quote introducing a later chapter:

Tocqueville saw that the life of constant action and decision which was entailed by the democratic and businesslike character of American life put a premium on rough and ready habits of mind, quick decision, and the prompt seizure of opportunities – and that all this activity was not propitious for deliberation, elaboration, or precision in thought.

That would be Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, published in 1834, as referenced in Hofstadter’s 1964 classic Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

“Work alone … not on a committee, not on a team”

Alas, her tale of The Extrovert Ideal arising in the 20th century is not the only time Cain spends pages passionately arguing a bold claim, only to walk it back later in a few paragraphs. For example, she tells the story of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak going in to his Hewlett-Packard at 6am to tinker with ideas for a personal computer, and coming back after dinner to work when everyone else had gone home. She then quotes this passage from Wozniak’s memoir iWoz:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone, where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an engineer and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

From this she spins a compelling tapestry of innovation as individual achievement, attacking what she calls The New Groupthink of workplace collaboration and the “mind-altering” nature of groups. She makes a passionate argument, but only by cherry-picking the science to support her conclusion, as she later admits:

But of course I’ve been simplifying the case against face-to-face collaboration. Steve Wozniak collaborated with Steve Jobs, after all; without their pairing, there would be no Apple today. Every pair bond between mother and father, between parent and child, is an act of creative collaboration. Indeed studies show that face-to-face interactions create trust in a way that online communications can’t. Research also suggests that population density is correlated with innovation; despite the advantages of quiet walks in the woods, people in crowded cities benefit from the web of interactions that urban life offers.

She even admits that she wrote Quiet not in the uncluttered office she set up in her home – where she “felt too cut off from the world to type a single keystroke” – but in a neighborhood café where the presence of other people sparked her creativity.

“I know he doesn’t like people”

Yet Cain is correct that we overvalue confident talkers and expect our children – and our leaders – to fit The Extrovert Ideal. Indeed that has become a recurrent criticism of President Barack Obama, as Cain wrote for the New York Times last September:

Distant. Aloof. Concealed inside “a layer of self-protective ice,” as Jonathan Alter put it. President Obama has been roundly criticized for his introverted personality.

The latest salvo comes from John Heilemann, a leading chronicler of the Obama presidency, in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I know he doesn’t like people,” Mr. Heilemann said of the president, contrasting him with the effervescent Bill Clinton. “He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.”

In fact, as Cain notes, introversion is not about whether you “like people.” It’s about what energizes you. Most introverts do like people, but they find large groups and public performances very tiring. To recharge, introverts want to spend time alone, with family, or with a few trusted friends. Extroverts recharge by spending time with larger groups, feeding on the energy of the crowd.

Research shows we tend to trust people who make bold, confident declarations, and we’re more wary of people who offer tentative, cautious hypotheses. But confidence and competence are not synonyms, and trusting the loudest, boldest voice can lead us to ruin. We’ll discuss that more tomorrow.


Happy Thursday!