The Birth of the Extrovert Ideal and Susan Cain’s Quiet

by Mark Wallace

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2012) has created waves and provoked much discussion on the benefits and difficulties of the “extrovert ideal” that Cain sees as central to western society. In the first chapter of the book, Cain offers a history of the rise of the Cult of Personality, which she sees as successor to the Cult of Character which was prevalent until about the 1920s (the terms are taken by Cain from Warren Susman).  The big difference between the two is that the Cult of Personality is externally focussed: the important thing is how others feel about you – it’s social power for men, “fascination” for women (that was the term in the 20s, now pretty much obsolete). With the earlier cult of character, deeds were central, rather than appearance. For Cain, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) is a key text in this change, both exemplifying the move towards Personality as it had already begun, and helping to expedite and finally entrench it. Aside from Carnegie’s and other influential books, Cain also notes the constitutive effect of economic systems on the individual: she attends a self-empowerment seminar with Tony Robbins and notes that the principle underlying all of Robbins’ activities and mantras is that “salesmanship governs even the most neutral interactions” (38). This is again seen to have roots in the 1920s rise of the “go-getter” – a business principle expanded to embrace all social interaction.

Cain’s history is interesting, but I wondered why she had chosen to pinpoint the 1920s as the historical point of extraversion’s triumph. The reason is not made wholly clear in Quiet, and I think that it has less to do with socio-economic specifics of that decade than with the fact that that was when the terms extraversion and introversion came into common currency – originating with Jung, then through Adler and so on. In fact, the extrovert ideal was apparent much earlier, if not under that name. My own study interest, Thomas Carlyle, was very aware of this. Carlyle was something of a contradiction because, as D.H. Lawrence observed, he wrote 30 volumes in praise of silence. In other words, he didn’t necessarily practice what he preached. Yet what preoccupied him in his writings was the emphasis on speech in his society of the mid-19th century. His great object of aversion was parliament: “Parliament will train you to talk; and, above all things to hear, with patience, unlimited quantities of foolish talk” (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets [1850] (Dodo Press, 2012), p. 153). The effect of this on the human individual was quite unpleasant:

“A poor human creature and learned friend, once possessed of many fine gifts, possessed of intellect, veracity, and manful convictions on a variety of objects, has he now lost all that; – converted all that into a glistening phosphorescence, which can show itself on the outside; while within, all is dead, chaotic, dark; a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones. (Ibid.)

Carlyle ultimately connects speech with insincerity and action with sincerity, and diagnoses his society as insincere to the point of disfunctionality, but for him the locus of the insincerity is not so much in the market economy as it is in the democratic system of government. The member of parliament, incumbent or aspirant, does not speak truly; he does not even try to speak truly; he cannot even try to speak truly. For him, the goal is to speak his “plausiblest, [his] showiest for parliamentary purposes” (156). Once this becomes a habit of mind, even thinking truth becomes impossible. For Carlyle, one can never speak untruthfully with impunity, because the seed of insincerity enters the mind, and makes of it “a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones”, as it were. And if this form of thought and speech is enshrined in the highest establishments of the nation, the lower must follow suit.

It is clear from reading Carlyle that the debate on introversion-extraversion was of considerable moment in the mid-19th century. You can see in Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) for example, how the demagogue (Slackbridge) was an object of distrust, and how his power over the people was feared. Dickens, too, was for silence and inarticulate doing rather than orating (in theory). So Cain’s history, though interesting, wrongly (I would suggest) assumes a temporal link between the birth of the extrovert ideal and the coining of the term. In contemporary society, there are political and economic situations which would appear to favour the extrovert, but this situation is not new: many people are more discomfited by silence than they are by the talking of rubbish, and phatic communication is for many a reassurance and a social glue. The extrovert ideal may go deeper than any politico-economic framework,  because even talking rubbish can bring people together, so long as they both talk the same kind of rubbish, whilst also necessarily excluding  non-rubbish-talking introverts, who may not “get on” quite so fast, but still remain what Jung called them, “educators and promoters of  culture” (qtd. Cain, 26); and thus retain, perhaps, a certain feeling of superiority and a not wholly unpleasing disdain for their more loquacious but less discerning brethren.