Yesterday I had a chance to crack open a gift that’s been patiently waiting on my shelf since Christmas. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. It’s a 2012 NYT bestseller about how American society tends to undervalue the gifts of introversion and how we can better appreciate and navigate the differences between introverts and extroverts. So far, I’m enjoying the read.
Author Susan Cain begins with a chapter entitled The Extrovert Ideal, which outlines America’s shift from a “Cultural of Character” to a “Culture of Personality” in the early 1900s. She writes,
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. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.
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 social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,’ Warren Susman famously wrote. ‘Every American was to become a performing self.’
Cain explains that in the 1920s self-help books started popping up everywhere, coaching readers to master outer charm rather than inner virtue. Keywords like duty, work, honor, morality, and integrity were replaced by magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, and energetic. The realms of advertising and psychology also supported this trend, further spreading the belief that it was both unpopular and unhealthy to be shy. Psychologists, social workers, and doctors during those times warned that “shyness could lead to dire outcomes, from alcoholism to suicide, while an outgoing personality would bring social and financial success.”
After providing some historical context, Cain then turns toward the present day USA and observes how we are constantly striving to entertain others and sell ourselves. Through celebrated books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and heavily-attended workshops like Toastmasters International, we receive countless cultural messages to “get out there” and make a good impression. Much of modern America stresses that everyone should be fun, lively, social, self-assured, and smooth—even if that means acting in total opposition to one’s nature. To be well-liked and successful, we should always be “on.”
As an introvert, I’ve definitely sensed an outward push toward extroversion. In some ways I’ve loved its challenge to step into stretching social situations and to expand the edges of my comfort zone, but in other ways the “Extrovert Ideal” and “Culture of Personality” have been pretty frustrating. Putting on a public persona can be exhausting for anyone, especially introverts. Rather than becoming a whole nation of charmers, it’d sure be great if we focused on developing individual integrity (being whole, honest, and consistent) and expressing ourselves authentically, whatever that looks like. False selves are over-rated. Right?
Yes, loud and party-loving is very, very good. But quiet and slow-to-speak is just as desirable. How incredibly bored we’d be without each other.
What do you value more—character or personality?