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Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

Being assertive, sotto voce

few years ago, while reading a magazine article titled "Caring for Your Introvert", by Jonathan Rauch, I found myself nodding vigorously at nearly every sentence. As someone who feels discomfited if he doesn't get to spend a certain amount of time alone each day — and who is constantly astonished by (and occasionally envious of) people who can move from one social engagement to another without taking time off to "recharge" — there was much in the piece that I could strongly identify with. Here was a thoughtful, mildly tongue-in-cheek analysis of a personality trait that has played a big part in my life and personal choices (including the one that has me working from home as a freelance writer).

The article was popular on the Net for a while, causing a friend — a fellow introvert — to quip that it would probably spark reactions of spurious mass-recognition: "This almost makes people like us seem glamorous! Many extroverts will read it, discover a few of their own personality traits in it, and convince themselves that they are secretly introverted." It was said in fun, but it was also a mild caution against the setting up of clear distinctions between personality types.

Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking covers similar ground, but (naturally) at greater length, and in the style of the popular, accessible non-fiction writing that has lately been exemplified by Malcolm Gladwell's work: a thesis or idea constructed around a real-life story, told with dramatic flair (which serves as a "hook" for the reader). Thus, one chapter begins with the Rosa Parks protest that became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Another chapter describes the early life of "an insecure high-school student named Dale", who grew up to become a public-speaking and corporate-training icon (his second name is Carnegie in case you hadn't figured it out).

Though she cautions against ethnic typecasting, Cain does dwell on the accumulated cultural differences that suggest a greater tendency towards introversion in Asian societies.

ooks aside, there is much of interest here. I particularly liked the passage about the gradual shift — in 1920s America — from a Culture of Character (where one's conduct in private life was more important than the impression one made in public) to a Culture of Personality, when "Americans started to focus on how others perceived them". In socio-historical terms, this ties in with the move from an agricultural to an industrialised way of life, and mass immigration to cities where an increasingly anonymous lifestyle made it vital for people to "sell themselves" and make good first impressions on strangers. (As Cain points out, the period also saw the rise of the first major movie-star personalities, who helped extroversion become a cultural ideal.) Though this section is about a specific place at a specific time, it doesn't need a leap of imagination to see how it applies to societies in various stages of development around the world.

Though she cautions against ethnic typecasting, Cain does dwell on the accumulated cultural differences that suggest a greater tendency towards introversion in Asian societies. Thus, studies indicate that while Chinese high-school students see humility and altruism as desirable personality traits in their friends, American students seek out the "cheerful", "enthusiastic" and "sociable". Even old proverbs from the East ("The wind howls, but the mountain remains still") indicate a preference for inner reflection. But quietness doesn't have to be synonymous with diffidence or with an inability to make strong decisions. "Conviction is conviction; at whatever decibel level it's expressed."

In this context, she examines Mahatma Gandhi's far-reaching achievements against the backdrop of his personal capacity for introspection. With a deified leader like Gandhi — often credited by hagiographers with singlehandedly bringing an Empire to its knees — there is a tendency to create romanticised narratives about a man who never compromised on principles. But Cain draws attention to incidents —such as his application to the Law Society when he was in South Africa — where he picked his battles and learned to appreciate the need for compromise. "Restraint, Gandhi believed, was one of his greatest assets. And it was born of his shyness." Quiet isn't a book that will — or should — help you reach definite conclusions about its (very broad) subject matter, but it should at the very least encourage reflection about our behavioural imperatives and their many implications.

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