The Rise of the Extrovert Ideal, from Quiet by Susan Cain

In Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (public library),  Susan Cain uses the term Extrovert Ideal to describe the social pressure to be extroverted. Qualities associated with extroversion — enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious — are rated positively whereas traits associated with introversion — quiet, thoughtful, analytic — are typically viewed if not negatively, then with less excitement.  Not to mention that introversion has traditionally been  confounded with shyness (which both extroverts and introverts can feel, and which relates to social anxiety) and anti-social behavior. Quiet enumerates the advantages of a reflective approach to life and it also gives a compelling cultural history of how and why extroversion is so valued in the first place.

Cain describes the rise of the Extrovert Ideal as a byproduct of America’s transition from a primarily rural to an urban society.  As people started to live increasingly in cities, among strangers, as opposed to in small towns, among a small, stable group of people, the ability to make quick, favorable impressions on others became increasingly important. Additionally, as America became more industrialized and entrepreneurial, the need to ‘sell’ ideas and products to other people became a fundamental skill for people who wanted to gain the most from the new economy. This view was described by Warren Susman, in his book Culture as History, as transition from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. Character consists of internal traits that anyone can develop and learn, but personality refers to external qualities that are partly determined by the traits you’re born with.

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.

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.

Susman counted the words that appeared most frequently in the personality-driven advice manuals of the early twentieth century and compared them to the character guides of the nineteenth century. The earlier guides emphasized attributes that anyone could work on improving, described by words like

  • Citizenship
  • Duty
  • Work
  • Golden deeds
  • Honor
  • Reputation
  • Morals
  • Manners
  • Integrity

But the new guides celebrated qualities that were— no matter how easy Dale Carnegie made it sound— trickier to acquire. Either you embodied these qualities or you didn’t:

  • Magnetic
  • Fascinating
  • Stunning
  • Attractive
  • Glowing
  • Dominant
  • Forceful
  • Energetic

The resulting anxiety from a need to constantly market and brand oneself was reflected in self-help books, such as Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people, and of course, advertising, which offered their products as easy solutions to assuage this anxiety.

…the new personality-driven ads cast consumers as performers with stage fright from which only the advertiser’s product might rescue them. These ads focused obsessively on the hostile glare of the public spotlight. “ALL AROUND YOU PEOPLE ARE JUDGING YOU SILENTLY,” warned a 1922 ad for Woodbury’s soap. “CRITICAL EYES ARE SIZING YOU UP RIGHT NOW,” advised the Williams Shaving Cream company.

Madison Avenue spoke directly to the anxieties of male salesmen and middle managers. In one ad for Dr. West’s toothbrushes, a prosperous-looking fellow sat behind a desk, his arm cocked confidently behind his hip, asking whether you’ve “EVER TRIED SELLING YOURSELF TO YOU? A FAVORABLE FIRST IMPRESSION IS THE GREATEST SINGLE FACTOR IN BUSINESS OR SOCIAL SUCCESS.” The Williams Shaving Cream ad featured a slick-haired, mustachioed man urging readers to “LET YOUR FACE REFLECT CONFIDENCE, NOT WORRY! IT’S THE ‘LOOK’ OF YOU BY WHICH YOU ARE JUDGED MOST OFTEN.”

And so, we see the birth of familiar commercial institutions such as the cosmetics, self-help, fashion, diet, plastic surgery and health industries, all built on a solid foundation of people’s insecurities. Parents worried that their quiet children were ‘anti-social’ and in the 1920s, the term Inferiority Complex became a catch all psychological disorder for people who had trouble adjusting to the cultural ideals. People who already fit the mold well could always do better and people who do not fit the mold at all might be left out altogether. In the 50s, such cultural norms were explicitly stated in educational propaganda files, such as ‘Neat and Clean’ (below) and ‘Social Responsibility’.

Furthermore, when enough people buy into a viewpoint, belief becomes a self-fulfilling reality: in the 1950s, businesses and schools actively sought out extroverted personalities. Cain gives quotes from deans at Harvard and Yale during this time.

University admissions officers looked not for the most exceptional candidates, but for the most extroverted. Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that Harvard should reject the “sensitive, neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.” In 1950, Yale’s president, Alfred Whitney Griswold, declared that the ideal Yalie was not a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” Another dean told Whyte that “in screening applications from secondary schools he felt it was only common sense to take into account not only what the college wanted, but what, four years later, corporations’ recruiters would want. ‘They like a pretty gregarious, active type,’ he said. ‘So we find that the best man is the one who’s had an 80 or 85 average in school and plenty of extracurricular activity. We see little use for the “brilliant” introvert.’ ”

And so extroverted traits became prerequisites for success because institutions decided it should be so. Extroversion became part of a ‘winning personality’. Even in fields where introversion is a clear asset, such as engineering, extroverts were preferred, as at IBM.

The scientist’s job was not only to do the research but also to help sell it, and that required a hail-fellow-well-met demeanor. At IBM, a corporation that embodied the ideal of the company man, the sales force gathered each morning to belt out the company anthem, “Ever Onward,” and to harmonize on the “Selling IBM” song, set to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Selling IBM,” it began, “we’re selling IBM. What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend.” The ditty built to a stirring close: “We’re always in trim, we work with a vim. We’re selling, just selling, IBM.”

In her book, Cain reminds us that introverted people have contributed a lot to society, especially in the arts, sciences, and activism. But she never says that introversion is better. She argues that society handicaps itself by advocating a single ‘right’ style for interacting with the world.