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But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament--for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening--which, after all, is easier to do if you're not talking--and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.
Introversion and extroversion aren't fixed categories--there's a personality spectrum, and many, known as ambiverts, fall in the gap between the two traits--but they are vital to our personality. "Our tendency to be extroverted or introverted is as profound a part of our identities as our gender," says Susan Cain, author of the new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "But there's a subtle bias against introverts, and it's generating a waste of talent and energy and happiness." It may be time for America to learn the forgotten rewards of sitting down and shutting up.
Born This Way
If you want to know how tough a society of extroverts can be for introverts and how quiet types can learn to adapt, you could do worse than talk to Cain. A graduate of Harvard Law School--not an institution known for churning out timid folks--she practiced corporate law for seven years before she began writing full time. During most of those years in the legal system, she hated what she did. Not every day--Cain loved research and writing--but it soon became clear that her soft-spoken, introspective temperament might not have been the best fit for a high-powered law firm. Eventually she left law and began working on her own, coaching clients in negotiating skills and working as a writer. "When I started practicing the law, I thought the ideal lawyer was bold and comfortable in the spotlight, but I was none of those things," says Cain. "I could fake those things, but it wasn't my natural self."
Faking it is exactly what a lot of introverts learn to do from an early age. And that masquerade covers up something primal and deep. Scientists have begun to learn that the introverted or extroverted temperament seems strongly inborn and inherited, influencing our behavior from not long after we're out of the womb.
That was the conclusion of a pioneering series of experiments by Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. In a 1989 study, he and his colleagues gathered a sample group of 500 4-month-old infants and exposed them to new experiences in the lab, including popping balloons, colorful mobiles and the smell of alcohol on cotton swabs. About 20% of the infants reacted intensely to the stimuli, crying and pumping their arms. About 40% stayed relatively quiet, and the remaining 40% fell between the two extremes.