• Paul Rutherford

BUBBLES AND THE BLONDE

Updated: Apr 14


40 Books in 2018

Susan Cain

QUIET

333pp Penguin Books

At a schoolfriend’s 16th birthday, the attempted catch was ‘Bubbles’, an exceptionally curvy, lively girl who seemed to connect with everyone. Especially boys. I sat with her on the sofa, making her laugh with my mid-teen jokes.

To keep the atmosphere (and my chances) moving positively, I went to the kitchen to fetch a drink.

I was only away for 30 seconds, but when I returned ‘Bubbles’ had gone. Even at that age, I could read a signal. Slumping defIated, I noticed the girl at the other end of the sofa. She was blonde, didn’t say anything, smiled and accepted my offer to share a can of Coke.

*

The silent type. The reserved, understated persona. That’s the focus of ‘Quiet’, an introvert manifesto by Susan Cain – former corporate lawyer, now a consultant and ‘Chief Revolutionary’. Having spent much of my career working with and reading about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), ‘Quiet’ was on my shelf to give me an update on the ‘north and south temperament’: Extraversion-Introversion.

For all it’s success (as they say in the publishing trade, Quiet 'caught fire' in 2012-13), it’s a book that doesn’t focus its form: is it an academic tract (there are 47 pages of references), a self-help book (“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right light”), or a reflection on self-discovery?

*

1994. A Xerox Leadership Development Programme at the Ashridge Business School. Six tables of five participants each. Mine… well, exceptionally boring. First day, they didn’t say much, didn’t laugh much, didn’t come up with ideas or quick answers.

On the second day, I learned why: my MBTI score (ranking 0 to 60) gave me extraversion of 30-something. The other four were all Introverts, the highest score with 57!

HR had put me in a group of Trappist monks.

Of course, that was the point. To learn to pay attention to people who would think first, speak second. This group of financial controllers, market analysts and product engineers were incredibly knowledgeable, and had a great way of solving puzzles.

I don’t remember if we ‘won’, or even if there was a competition. But I do remember the importance of making room for others who work / think / action at a different pace, or from a different perspective.

*

The meat of the ‘Quiet’ book starts with two icons of the American extravert culture from either end of the C20th: Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins, perhaps better known for “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Awaken the Giant Within.”

(Robbins is 6’7”, so it’s easy to guess which one he wrote.)

Cain reports from a Tony Robbins seminar, where 3,800 worshippers (my description, not hers) clap, cheer, fist-bump, fire walk and try to resist endless ‘upselling’ of other publications, DVDs, workshops, and the opportunity to go on vacation with Tony.

In the words of one psychiatrist, Robbins has “exuberant, upbeat, overenergetic, and overconfident lifelong traits” that (Cain continues) ‘have been recognized as assets in business, especially sales.’

In researching her book, it seems as if Cain had only met one successful sales introvert.

In truth, there are plenty.

*

KENTON’S: a High Street furniture retailer, and my first Saturday job as a student. Three salesmen, an assistant manager (Tommy), a manager (Lionel) and two ladies working behind the cash desk.

‘High Street’ and ‘cash desk’ and ‘ladies’ capture that era in just five words.

Lionel combed his brilliantined hair, constantly trimmed his spiv moustache, and greeted and entertained the shop visitors. I’m probably unfair, but I don’t recall him ever closing a sale. That was Tommy’s job, blinking nervously through his jam jar spectacles.

If a salesman (especially me) looked uncertain, rushing to get an order, or was about to have a customer head for the exit, Tommy would get both parties back on track, apparently without trying.

He didn’t say much, just created space for both to re-think.

*

Cain has a thesis and has selected her evidence to make the case. She seems to have avoided happy introverts (for example software engineers, accountants, craftspeople, designers, librarians, lorry drivers… even actors).

Instead, she spends time with business schools, executive offices and Evangelical churches. (Evangelical = faith + extraversion)

And her complaint about America making ‘room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles’ applies just as much to her sources. Here are a number of references named in the main text for the best seats of learning: Yale x3; Wharton x3; Berkeley x5; Harvard x56.

While using HBS as a reference point for her Extravert Ideal theory, the irony is the lack of specific references to the most successful software developers in the past 50 years; both introverts, both Harvard dropouts.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

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IBM: my first work placement during my degree. The General Systems Division (GSD) selling and servicing midrange computer systems (Series 1, System 34 and System 38) to midsized customers across the south-east of England.

The three most successful sales representatives – in their white shirts and dark suits – were Cliff, Lindsay and Phil.

They would welcome a shared joke but never be the start of a lark. After work, if they came for a drink in the local, it would just be one, then they’d go home. All introverts, all making their targets quarter by quarter, all making Sales Club each year.

*

Another thread woven through ‘Quiet’ is the amount of Neuroscience experimentation, trying to explain the extravert-introvert dichotomy. Pages of description and references go to great lengths to the use of fMRI scanning, to capture and explain the role of various parts of the brain – especially the amygdala.

But no-one in 'Quiet' explains why this information is useful.

If introverts are better at call centre roles, should potential candidates be scanned rather than interviewed? Alternatively, should pharmaceutical companies be developing drugs to specifically up or down the amygdala functions in the context of specific job function?

Both notions have considerable ethical implications.

Carl Jung identified the introvert-extravert tendencies in 1921 (‘Personality Types’); Myers and Briggs published their identifying framework in 1956; David Keirsey covered 'temperament, character and intelligence' in his brilliant and comprehensive 'Please Understand Me II' in 1998.

How does the recent obsession with scanning help or move it all forward in any practical way?

*

CLEARSWIFT – a security software company, where the most growth comes from the Public Sector, especially Defence. And the sales professional upon who the company relied to make the numbers, was Jonathan, an introvert.

He networked, planned and shaped complex deals which took weeks, months - sometimes a couple of quarters – then Jonathan would recover by going home, having a quiet dinner with his wife, then spending the evening alone in his ‘back bedroom music space’, with the highest quality audio equipment and the most expensive Bowers & Wilkins speakers that money could buy.

*

As I write this from my scribbled notes, I wonder if there should be a fourth leg to the academic / self-help / memoire stool: is 'Quiet' a work of sociology? Cain has produced a portrait – albeit rather selective - of US society, at least on two coasts. Part of a country that worships extraverts (or introverts that play a role to stay in the game, a.k.a ‘pseudo-extraverts’).

There is a chapter that professes to be about other cultures, but even this is narrow. Asian-Americans, with a sample focused on Chinese / Japanese / Koreans, first and second generation in Silicon Valley, who represent a population which “is distributed a few extra degrees towards the introverted end of the scale.”

Only one Indian, Raj, gets into the book. And the conclusion that Europe is more extravert than Asia - except for Finland.

A group well represented is historical figures. The role model in the book's Introduction is Rosa Parks, compared-and-contrasted with Martin Luther King. Other, perhaps hypothetical, introverts include Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare.

Cain says that Moses was an introvert although “we tend to write his true personality out of the Exodus story." Drawing conclusions from actions or reportage is one thing; stating someone’s psychological state over three thousand years ago sounds like throwing any idea into the kitchen sink to make a point

The core of ‘Quiet’ is that introverts (at least in the USA) are getting a harder and harder time. If you are an introvert, it's the same as being tall or short, black or white: Introversion and Extraversion are presented as absolutes.

Unless you're an Ambivert. Confused? So am I, especially as in the many hundreds of quoted references, there is only a single mention of 'Preference' – the very foundation of the Jung-MBTI thinking.

Which leaves me wondering if that reflects Cain’s own Introversion, or her training at Harvard Law School?

*

I never saw Bubbles again. Last time I heard about her, she had joined the Hampshire Constabulary as a Woman Police Constable.

And the blonde? Forty years later – two London flats, two house moves, several career changes (for us both), three children and one Silver Wedding anniversary later – she is still teaching me everything I need to know and appreciate about introverts’ strengths.

Especially knowing when it's time to stop.

(1561 words. Thanks for reading.)

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