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March 23, 2015 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Initially the atmosphere in the jury room was chaotic. After spending four days hearing different sides of a story with no clear answer, we couldn’t leave until we’d made a decision. The people with dominant personalities were stifling any opportunity for the more softly spoken to talk. One told us all that we couldn’t possibly let someone’s life be ruined by going to jail. Another said he deserved it because he lived in Kingsland (a suburb in central Auckland) so must be guilty. After nearly an hour of going nowhere I tentatively suggested that perhaps we go around in a circle and let each member of the jury express their thoughts on whether the legal test—beyond all reasonable doubt that someone was guilty—had been met.

Walking out of the District Court, our service no longer needed, someone said “you made us all feel like a stronger team, thank you.” I was the youngest by at least ten years and not the foreman. But the simple suggestion that we listen to each other had me somehow leading the conversation. As someone who could be considered to lie on the more introverted end of the personality scale (I like books and going to the movies by myself), this came as a surprise. My concept of leadership was someone whose heart didn’t race when asked a question in lectures. Who talked the most in tutorials. Who won all the debating competitions in school. Yet in this instance all the group needed was calm guidance on how to listen to each other. We then reached a balanced and fairly reasoned decision as the collaborative body a jury is intended to be. I didn’t really say much more than anyone else. But I learnt a valuable lesson about the importance of quiet collaboration.

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If you find yourself deliberately walking solitary routes home, shifting to a spot in the library where no one can find you to concentrate or have a notorious reputation for being an unreliable replier to texts, the pressures associated with leadership courses such as these go against your instincts. Most of the time an innate desire to be alone or aversion to constant conversation can feel antisocial and boring in a world that demands a never-ending state of being literally switched-on. Unless you buy a Nokia. One introvert test (found on asks “Do your peers (not friends) see you as…(a) cold and calculating (b) warm and caring (c) the hottest action in town”. For some reason being more reserved seems to be generally thought of as a bad thing.

In 2012 the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking became a New York Times Bestseller. Author Susan Cain gave a TED talk the same year explaining how her research demonstrates a societal bias towards being extroverted. An introvert herself, Cain argued that from working environments to classrooms, quieter tendencies are systemically seen as inhibiting personal growth. But this, she says, “is the world’s loss, because when it comes to creativity and leadership we need introverts doing what they do best”. The talk has since been viewed by more than five million people on YouTube and unleashed a wave of people confessing to their introversion after years of trying to be something different.

One of these confessors is the flawless role model for all, Emma Watson (she may be a living and breathing Hermione even more than we knew). In an interview with Tavi Gevinson for Rookie magazine last year, the bewitching star praised Quiet for making introverts feel valued. “It discusses how extroverts in our society are bigged up so much,” she said, “and if you’re anything other than an extrovert you’re made to think there’s something wrong with you.” Even Emma Watson, who is currently captivating the world as a Global Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations and the highest grossing actress in the past decade, felt there was something wrong with her because she didn’t want to get drunk every weekend. Quiet made her see otherwise.

Psychologist Carl Jung popularised introversion and extraversion in the 1920s. Introversion describes a person who is reserved, solitary and quiet. An extrovert by contrast is talkative, outwardly confident and energetic. The terms have since become extremely popular in defining personalities. Universities and companies widely use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which evaluates what end of the spectrum you are on, in testing whether you are the right fit for a job—even though Jung himself said “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Tests are likely to place you on the introverted end of the scale if you:

  • prefer one on one conversations to group interactions;

  • like deep and meaningfuls on a topic that interests you over small talk;

  • find it easier to express your thoughts and feelings in writing;

  • avoid answering phone calls;

  • enjoy solitude;

  • are told you are a good listener;

  • dislike conflict.

However, the main difference between introversion and extraversion relates to contrasting reactions to stimulation. People process social stimuli in different ways: “extroverts” need interaction and attention, and “introverts” need solitude and peace to survive the attention-seeking of the extroverts. Shyness, which is typically associated with heightened consciousness and anxiety in the face of social demands, is not the same thing as introversion. When you’re an introvert the opportunity to be alone is relished as an opportunity to recharge, not avoid a social life entirely. Your extroverted counterpart is the opposite, and is energised by social interactions with a tendency to get bored or anxious when left to themselves.

Last year Cain launched her “Quiet Revolution”. Its manifesto is to empower introverts to assert their softer personalities in the face of a society that values extroverted behaviour. She aims to do this by creating environments that foster the productivity of introverts on their own terms in circumstances of leadership and creativity. The end goal isn’t a triumphant reign of introverts with extroverts scorned for their dominance. Instead Cain calls for establishing a balance between the two personality types and combining their skills to create a more effective world.


On 12 March 1930 an intensely spiritual man scooped up a handful of salt on a beach on the southern coast of India. This small act would trigger a massive movement of civil disobedience for the cause of Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi explained his decision to target salt as recognition of the importance salt had for even the lowliest Indian, saying “next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life”. It would directly challenge the British government’s monopoly on salt production at the time. The act reflected his unwavering belief in the subtle weaponry of peaceful protest. It has defined him as one of the most influential political figures in history.

Contemporary society seems to have forgotten leaders such as Gandhi, with multiple studies in recent decades supposedly identifying a correlation between extraversion and leadership. A gregarious nature makes you more approachable and engaging. Enhanced levels of enthusiasm are an advantage in compelling others to pursue goals and make things happen. Self-confidence attracts respect and thus makes you an inspiration for all. These qualities apparently indicate competence in fields such as politics and business.

This idea that extroverts are more successful leaders has infiltrated the popular consciousness. Over 65 per cent of businesses in the US in the past decade saw introversion as a hindering quality for leadership. Politicians who are more reserved, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, tend to attract heavy criticism. In 2008 there was heavy debate about whether Hillary was “likeable”. A theory currently swirls that Obama doesn’t like people at all (although both are working in the wake of Bill’s gregarious and tantalisingly intimate legacy). A demonstration of a careful and considered nature tends to be interpreted as awkward and aloof.

In 2008, then-leader of the opposition John Key completed a personality test at the request of the Sunday Star Times. The results demonstrated that he is an “extrovert” rather than an “introvert” with a “go-getter” personality, and follows his head rather than his heart. Key’s personality has proven to be one of the most successful electoral ploys in New Zealand’s political history. David Cunliffe, former leader of the Labour Party, took the same test (again for the Sunday Star Times) in 2013. He had an even higher level of extraversion than Key. The article commented it would be an “asset to both on the election trail, making it easier to keep smiling all day when meeting many people.”

But the apparent benefits of extraversion are a historically constructed perception. In Quiet Susan Cain explains how extraversion has a historically short lifespan as the ideal leadership style. The ideal of a “talkative” and dominant leader emerged in the twentieth century in response to a power vacuum after the World Wars and the rise of the middle class in modern capitalist societies. A culture that previously valued “character”—integrity and good deeds performed without attracting attention to oneself—lost value in the face of the efficient individual. Cain describes the result as a systemic bias in favour of extroverted personality traits. Self-help books such as How to Win Friends and Influence People have become bestsellers. Everyone somehow needs to “improve” themselves by taking leadership courses that will unleash the inner social butterfly within their prohibitive shy cocoons.

Commanding attention does not mean there is any substance. You don’t have to be the most dominant person in the room to inspire others around you.


Time to discuss the mythical nerdy introvert. Not infrequently used as an insult, nerd is defined as “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. Preferably with glasses. I thought it just meant someone who was intimidatingly smart, like Lisa Simpson. Yet ironically, the word “nerd” itself was invented by the one of the world’s most acclaimed introverts, Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel).

Whenever a member of the extended family graduates, my aunt gifts them a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, a book intended to encourage you to explore and reach your full potential. It’s brimming with quotes such as “Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.” It seems like a strange fit with the personality of its writer. Dr Seuss would create the Cat in the Hat, the Lorax and Green Eggs and Ham sitting in an old observation tower at the back of his garden eight hours each day and would avoid meeting the children who read his books for fear he wouldn’t meet their expectations. Concentrated distance from other people let’s your imagination run wild.

In her book Susan Cain argues that everyone needs some form of solitude to give our brains creative space. Psychologists have demonstrated that humans naturally pick up on the thoughts and behaviours of the people around us but the most creative minds depend on solitude. Time out fosters individual contemplation and epiphanies. It worked for countless prophets, musicians, artists, mathematicians, scientists—all “thinkers”. But today Cain observes that “the most important institutions in our society including workplaces are designed for extroverts and for extroverts need for extra stimulation.”

There is a growing notion that constant interaction with other people fosters the best creativity and productivity. Facebook’s new offices includes a room that can house 10,000 employees. All open plan. Offices such as these are anathema to any movement that promotes peaceful contemplation. Cain is currently collaborating with a design company to create room designs called “Quiet Spaces”, which focus on creating secluded spaces in workplaces. Maybe she has a way of getting people to stop whispering about their love lives in the blue zones of the library. Cain points out that the more introverts are given a chance to work according to their preferences the stronger the collaboration between different people with different skills in different circumstances. Without Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs joining together there may never have been Apple.

Steve Wozniak could be considered the ultimate manifestation of the typical “nerd”, glasses not included. In his autobiography he said of his creative process that “I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: work alone. Not on a committee. Not on a team.” When it comes to the development of ideas, which you then bring back to a team, riding solo is more likely to endow you with epiphanies of all varieties.

One final example: Harry Potter was infamously conceived on a train by an introvert. J.K. Rowling directly credits the genesis of boy who didn’t know he was a wizard to her introversion. All of her pens failing on her and too shy to ask anyone else for a working one, Rowling sat on the train for hours just thinking about the boy who would change the lives of every child born in the 1990s. Without her I wouldn’t have been waiting for a letter from Hogwarts until about fifteen.

There is a power in being quiet. Follow Gandhi’s advice and remember that “In a gentle way you can shake the world.”

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