March 18, 2012 at 7:47 PMI'm in the middle of reading a book about Introversion, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can't stop talking, by Susan Cain. I'm also in the middle of re-reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. It's always been normal for me to be reading several books at once, and the problem seems to have just gotten worse since I got a Nook last Christmas. Although in my defense, I'm reading Little Women to my daughter, aloud at night before bed. It's something we started when she was a baby and still do now that she is 12. I don't know how much longer it will last, probably not into high school, but I still treasure this time.
By chance, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine is also reading Little Women. To herself, not to her daughter. My friend's first name is Amy, and she was named for Amy March, the youngest sister in the book. She was involved in a St. Patrick's Day project to shave her head for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, a foundation that raises money to help kids with childhood cancers. I immediately thought of Jo March, who sold her hair, her "one beauty," to a wig maker to help her mother pay for a ticket to Washington to care for her injured husband. My friend Amy, whose beautiful long blond hair is now also being made into a wig--for a child with cancer--has more than one beauty. Nonetheless, our conversation on Facebook turned to Jo. Even though she's named for a different character, Amy's favorite is Jo. The Director of Religious Education at my church loves Jo too, and has written academic papers on her. Jo is also my daughter's favorite. And when my daughter asked me who my favorite was, even I pointed out that there was something pretty cool about moving to New York and meeting and marrying a German guy (which is what I did myself 15 years ago). These days I think it's almost impossible to be a bookish girl of a certain age (or almost any age) and not admire Jo. Modeled on her creator, Louisa May Alcott, Jo became a wildly successful author in a time when most women did not have careers outside the home. And, at least in the book, she appears to have had fun doing it. Louisa in fact supported her own family for many years through her writing.
But upon re-reading a book that I last read about 30 years ago or more, I'm stumbling on some uncomfortable truths. I remember now that it took me a few tries to get through that book at all, when I was a kid. The tone is a little too preachy, and everybody--even the supposedly flawed and temperamental Jo--is a little too sweet and perfect.
What's most remarkable to me, though, is that while as an adult, I admire Jo and consider her an interesting and appropriate role model for my own spirited daughter, I'm remembering now that when I first read the book, my favorite character, the one I identified with the most, was not Jo at all. It was Beth. Quiet, introverted Beth--even then, an outlier in a world that couldn't stop talking. Jo, by contrast, was a little scary, and the opposite of me: she was jolly, and extroverted, and talked to boys easily.
Many days I envied Beth that she was allowed to be homeschooled. I liked that she petted and favored and was comforted by a beat-up old doll. More than anything, though, what I liked about Beth was that she was a musician, a pianist who played for herself, her family members, and her friends. Mr. Lawrence, her wealthy next-door neighbor, let her play their fancy grand piano every afternoon, when she thought no one else was around, or listening. Beth reminds Mr. Lawrence of his beloved granddaughter, who also played the piano and passed away while still a child.
There has been some scholarship on Beth. One commentator points out that Beth is a version of a 19th century stock character, the "Angel in the House," a character that Virginia Woolf wrote had to be killed in order for women artists to assert their creative independence. Louisa, by having Beth die in the second half of Little Women, appears to have largely agreed, perhaps foreshadowing Woolf. I never quite forgave Louisa for killing off Beth. Why not let her grow up and become a beloved piano teacher, lavishing all the love and care on her students that she lavished on her dolls? I took Beth's death a little personally. I never looked at the book quite the same way again.
The commentators are right in one way, at least: society doesn't seem to know what to do with introverts. It's certainly viewed as a tidier and more dramatic story if the quiet ones are pushed off the literary stage one way or another, leaving the real, interesting business of literature to those who heroically take risks and self-actualize. From reading Cain's book, it appears not much has changed, in literature or anywhere else. If anything, the pro-extrovert bias has gotten stronger in the 20th and 21st centuries. In situations from school, to work, to church, people are exhorted to "put themselves out there" and work collaboratively in large groups. Introverts are called anti-social, shamed, and weeded out in job interviews by misapplied Myers-Briggs tests.
Reading Cain's book, I, like many others, felt a shock of recognition. I almost felt like I could have written the book myself. In particular, it described virtually my entire early career on the violin: dislike of performing, not wanting people to hear me play--a desire, like Beth, to play music alone or only for people I knew rather than strangers. And the subsequent shame and feeling of being defective since I didn't fit society's “Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.”
But I didn't write the book, and in my relief at having my basic introversion validated in print, at first I missed an important part of Cain's thesis: that introverts and extroverts complement, and need each other. What's out of balance in modern times is that the extrovert ideal is taking up too much space. Rather than merely saying defensively that introverts are too just as good as extroverts, Cain makes the case that introversion, with its allowance for and consideration of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, provides a much-needed check on overreaching. Cain points out that throughout history there has always been an important creative tension between thought and action, between the philosopher and the king. She highlights the working relationship between introverted Rosa Parks and extroverted Martin Luther King Jr. as a particularly meaningful partnership in the civil rights movement. Introverts, with their tendency to look before they leap, are less likely to make bad investment decisions, and are more likely to be able to see and avert impending disasters. In fact, Jo March knew this too. Jo describes Beth as "her conscience" and has a special, close relationship with her of mutual respect.
A particularly important and damaging myth that Cain takes on in her book is the perception that introverts are anti-social or don't care about others. She provides many examples of introverts rising to the occasion and creating something meaningful in a relationship: a beloved college professor who has touched many of his students' lives but lives a solitary life with his wife and wants to be off when he's off, Rosa Parks, and a young lawyer who manages to negotiate a deal with a particularly difficult and egotistical client. And she also makes the case that introverted artists with their self-awareness and sensitivity can make great performers if they choose to, and if their gifts aren't squelched by damaging labels applied to their personalities.
In Little Women, at the end of the chapter, "Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful," Jo suggests, as a joke, that Beth go over and thank Mr. Lawrence for his kindnesses. To everyone's surprise and delight, Beth too rises to the occasion.
"she went and knocked at the study door before she gave herself time to think, and when a gruff voice called out, come in! she did go in, right up to Mr. Laurence, who looked quite taken aback, and held out her hand, saying, with only a small quaver in her voice, I came to thank you, sir, for. . . But she didn't finish, for he looked so friendly that she forgot her speech and, only remembering that he had lost the little girl he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed him . . . Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride."
I hope that now, in the 21st century, for Jo to succeed, Beth no longer has to die. Both Beth and Jo deserve better.
Question: Isn’t extraversion and introversion depending on the environment, age, experience, education, state of mind one is in at a particular time, etc.?
My answer is absolutely yes. I tried different tests and got mixed results. I feel I can (either by appearance or by my own choice) switch between two sides over a period of time. When I was a child, I was told often that I was the centre of the attention but I didn't seek the attention. I just got it being who I was, often not to my benefit in a society invisibility was more desirable and safer. As I grew up, I've noticed that in a more unhealthy environment (politically or otherwise), I would withdraw and I was told for being enigmatic and standoff-ish. Among likeminded people and when my guard comes down, I'm all jolly and talkative. My philosophy training encourages my introvert tendency but legal training has brought more extroversion out of me in many circumstances (eg. you have to exert confidence and be upbeat under pressure). This is same with performance, I only enjoy it when I believe the audience is friendly. I don't like to perform for the performance sake. So on... am I an extrovert or introvert? My answer is: it depends.
I'm sure I'm not alone. If a categorization of personality can be so fluid, I'm skeptical about its usefulness.
I've also gotten less shy with age. But I think I'm like the introverts Cain talks about who rise to the occasion when necessary. And as she also points out, shy and introverted aren't necessarily coupled. I thought they were for a long time and it was good for me to learn that they don't have to be. I've also sought out, and have, more extroverted friends as I get older. But I don't think I've gotten any more extroverted myself.
But anyway, even if the classifications are context-dependent, and even if you can find an introvert and an extrovert in the same person at different times and places, I still think that Cain's point (and mine--that Beth doesn't have to die in order for Jo to live) is valid, and the distinction usefully made. The creative tension between the two is necessary. It's like a yin/yang sort of relationship. A society that stifles and kills off its introverts and the introverted sides of people--even metaphorically-- is losing an important part of itself.
My daughter is 10 and I wonder if she'd read "Little Women". People's attitudes have changed so much since then. I read it over and over when I was 12 or 13, but what I really loved was "Eight Cousins", also by LMA. It seemed less preachy and less "dated", maybe because it was about a lot of boys (and one girl) rather than a lot of girls (and one boy). Interesting to think that may be why.
Introverts may need time to recharge and be alone after being in social situations, but it doesn't mean that they hate social situations or don't care about other people. I think Beth March is overall a good example of a happy introvert without self-pity. Although, in some ways I think Alcott took this to an extreme: Beth never complained, even on her deathbed. And in my opinion, because she was so self-abnegating, Beth was sometimes taken advantage of by her sisters. She so uncomplainingly did their chores that it took her getting deathly ill for them to realize how much she did for them.
So, I also think that having these introvert qualities misunderstood by others can be a source of real pain and suffering that shouldn't be dismissed. I have an extrovert friend who I've talked to about feeling misunderstood from the other end of the spectrum, too. That also hurts. I was once in a work situation with a woman who, in my opinion, was constantly talking about nothing. From my perspective she barged into my office unannounced and distracted me from doing my work. I found her irritating and I started to develop a low opinion of her intelligence because of her chatter and her habit of thinking aloud. Another introverted coworker and I would complain about her behind her back because, we would say, she didn't appear to be able to engage her brain without engaging her mouth. But, as we did not appreciate at the time, she was also good at other parts of her job that involved dealing with a lot of different people. She was great on the phone and visitors to the office remembered how kind, friendly, and thoughtful she was to them. We introverts weren't being fair to her, either, any more than the people who call us cold and shy and uncaring are to us.
I think that's another example of how the classification can be useful, even if it can change or be context-specific. As Tom says above, it helps you understand what the issues are. In that way I can see why it would be helpful to a workplace manager to use the I/E axis as a lens to view employees. If there is a conflict between I and E ways of behaving, rather than judging or placing blame, it points toward solutions.
So for example, realizing that my chatty coworker was an extrovert who needed human contact to be most effective, whereas I had different needs, was helpful to me in dealing with her. Instead of irritably saying "stop bothering me with your stupid chit-chat!" I was able to just calmly point out that I needed quiet, uninterrupted time to do my work and ask for that in a more polite and non-confrontational way.
First of all, showing compassion to me does not mean you say what people want to hear, but rather it means one feels the suffering other people are having and tries to help reduce it, and pointing out the root of the cause is but one attempt of that.
Maybe a bit about myself will help make some sense. Growing up during the "cultural revolution" in China, I've seen evil and suffering beyond explanation. I was politically persecuted since in my elementary school years only because I was playing Mozart and reading books (eg. music theories) others didn’t know. Do I know unhappiness?! As an immigrant, I had to start from scratch and even after all the success academically, being a female visible minority member in North America, I certainly face all sorts of challenges that my white husband doesn’t seem to have. I don’t know how and when, but after quite some struggle and hard soul searching, I started to realize there is a solution to all this suffering, that is, to paraphrase Murakami, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
I know I’m very limited and one of the biggest limits I’ve got is I don’t yet know how to best present my good intent, unsugar-coated, in a language that is not my mother tongue. If my words offend you, please be assured that the intended effect was the opposite. Of course, how you should feel about it, the choice is always yours. Do not give this power to anyone else.
Seriously, I think part of human accomplishment is that we can rise above nature confines and transcend the animal conditions we are born with through help and self-help. It’s good to know people are born different and it is better if we can move to a next step, to create a space within ourself to have a more beautiful world inside.
But I guess I don't really understand this concern with whether or not the trait can change over time. I think it can, at least in certain cases, but that doesn't address the more interesting question of whether it should.
I love the whole introvert theme too. As one myself, I can really understand the struggles, especially of making contributions to this life. It's funny, many performers are actually introverts (I used to be a professional musician) - fine on the stage but tongue-tied one on one.
I blog exclusively about Louisa May Alcott and we've just started a re-read of Little Women - we have a nice little community and we'd love to have you all stop by. There are several posts from last year's read of Little Women. The blog can be found at http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com.
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