The Extrovert Ideal?

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I recently came across an interesting book while searching through the New York Times bestseller list, entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  It took only a few pages of Susan Cain’s insights on our society’s “extrovert ideal” to send my mind racing with reflections on my own personality, my relationships, and more broadly, on my work in development.

Cain describes how the United States transitioned to this extrovert ideal during the rapid urbanization of the turn of the century, when Americans left their small communities for the city and “found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers.”  She quotes the historian Roland Marchand who observes that, ‘The reasons why one man gained a promotion or one woman suffered a social snub, had become less explicable on grounds of long-standing favoritism or old family feuds.’  This new social situation resulted in American who tried to “sell not only their company’s latest gizmo but also themselves.”   Literature and popular media went from promoting ideals such as citizenship, duty, and manners to attributes such as fascinating, stunning, forceful, and energetic

I was at first a bit skeptical of her argument, but as she provides examples from advertising to psychology during this period of rapid growth of consumer culture, I realized just how right she is about how our society has reinforced the need for all individuals to be gregarious, outgoing, and extroverted, regardless of our natural personalities.  The easy example is the everlasting popularity of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.  More interesting examples are provided from the field of child psychology which started to treat maladjusted children for such behavior as preferring to spend recess with only one or two friends.  I can now think of countless other examples.  My undergraduate alma mater, University of Virginia, has a top-ranked law program which prides itself on producing “social” lawyers, and encouraging weekend parties and softball leagues as part of the law school education.  All of which fails to recognize that there is value in individuals that prefer one-on-one conversations, express themselves best in writing, dislike multi-tasking, or perform  best  when working alone, all characteristics generally ascribed to introverts.  Cain makes a plausible case for how these trends have led to more worrisome outcomes, such as the popularity of anti-anxiety medicine in modern society, as individuals with introverted traits struggle with feelings of inferiority and not fitting in.

This led me to reflect on our work in development.  As more countries are experiencing the rapid urbanization that United States experienced 100 years ago, it is clear that they are started to experience some of the same negative externalities of development, such as obesity and diabetes, that have afflicted the US and Europe increasingly over the past century.  Should we in the development industry be aware of how we are contributing to these trends? Are we exporting our “extrovert ideal” and thereby potentially many of our social anxieties?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.  I was recently speaking with a Kenyan manager of a larger international aid program after he had taken a management course.  During the course, they had reviewed communication styles, and he had realized that he was often too direct with his employees.  After the course, he wanted to make an effort to take more time to engage with his staff in everyday communication – for example, asking about someone’s family before launching into the day’s agenda.  He noted that he had learned this direct communication style while working for an American NGO for seven years, but that he knew it did not translate with his staff who were still more accustomed to the community-based values mentioned previously.

I was also enlightened during a recent trip to Zambia with our gender expert at MEDA. During her assessment of project, which is being run through a company managed by international staff, she observed that the extroverted character of many Zambian women could not be mistaken for real voice or power in the largely male-dominated workplace. The insight was overlooked previously by both myself and the company’s staff, arguably because our cultural lens leads us to mistake outgoing personalities for confidence and power. Her observation led to concrete recommendations on how to engage local women more effectively by bringing them into positions of power that honor naturally more introverted characteristics. These recommendations reflect Cain’s argument about how introverts can be effective in all aspects of business by leveraging, rather than suppressing, their personality.

This is not to say that our tendency to promote gregarious personality traits is inherently a bad thing.  Offering people a wider variety of food choices is a good thing; however, it can still lead to obesity.  Just the same, we should be helping more of the people we work with develop management skills, and to move effectively into leadership roles, which do in fact require certain personality traits. At the same, I would argue that we should take time to be aware of how our cultural preferences, such as the extrovert ideal, can cause anxieties in other cultures, just as they have in our own.

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