What You Can Get Away With » extroverts

I’ve recently finished reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking which I found interesting, though it suffered a little from trying to cover a lot of territory. There were many times when it felt like she’d just begun to explore an area and then turned away to head on to the next topic and the book felt somewhat uneasily balanced between being pop science, sociology, psychology and self-help, attempting to cover lots of bases without going into depth on any one of them.

However, reading the book did chime with me a number of levels, not least because it connected with some of the writing and thinking I’ve done about politics recently. One of Cain’s key points is that Western culture is in thrall to what she terms the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, where it’s seen as important to have a big and outgoing personality and it’s important to be at the heart of the group and drawing attention to yourself. There’s some fascinating sequences in the book where she visits places like Harvard Business School and sees how this ‘Culture of Personality’ is stressed as the only way to be a success and a leader – despite there being plenty of evidence that companies and organisations led by people with an introverted style have a tendency to be more successful.

It struck me that this same culture is part of our politics. A couple of years ago, I went on one of the LGID’s Leadership Academy programmes for councillors, part of which involved doing a Myers-Briggs test. I’m sure it won’t surprise many of you to know that the majority of people there were ranked as Extroverts by Myers-Briggs, with Introverts like me a small number. That, I believe, is the usual balance for those courses – from my experience of meeting councillors, I would expect extroverts to dominate, and I suspect the same is true at any level of elected politician.

This shouldn’t surprise us as the current image of a successful politician is someone who’s a fluent public speaker, full of hail-fellow-well-met good heartedness and the ability to ‘connect’ with the ‘ordinary voter’. Charisma and projecting yourself is important, and policy? Well, that’s something the wonks can sort out in the backroom, what’s important is that you get out there and campaign.

I wrote a few months back about how we spend too much time treating politics as a game (see this post as well) and I was reminded of it by a passage in Quiet. Talking about the results of a study in which extroverts and introverts played either a competitive or co-operative game, Cain points out that (on p231 of the hardback edition):

Introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts, extroverts prefer those they compete with.

That, to me, explains a lot. I’ve written many times here and on Twitter about how disheartening I find watching Parliament, Question Time or other political coverage most of the time. Watching politics turn into a contest of who can shout the loudest or get the most people to bray along in agreement with me doesn’t appeal to me at all, and I often find it bewildering that people can be hurling abuse at each other one moment, then being all friendly soon after. But then, if most politicians are extroverts, then this is entirely natural as it’s all just part of the game to them. Is it the case that if politics – or at least, the public face of it – is dominated by extroverts, then it’s going to naturally be this way?

Another political thought that reading Quiet sparked in me was whether the extrovert/introvert dichotomy is also reflected in whether people are interested in campaigning or policy. Stereotype extroverts love the idea of getting out there, knocking on doors, glad-handing strangers in shopping centres or arguing at hustings, while the stereotypical introvert would much rather be with a smaller group of people discussing ideas in depth to come to a solution. Is it the Extrovert Ideal that’s pushing us into a narrative whereby everything is seen through the prism of campaigning – who’s up and who’s down in the polls, how many doors have you knocked on today and how many leaflets have you delivered? – rather than what we might actually do with power? And when we do discuss policy, are we best served by having those discussions in big adversarial conference debates – often characterised by the leadership winning or losing votes – rather than something quieter and more discursive?

Finally, is there potential to change this? Or more fundamentally, is there a desire to change or are people happy with the system the way it is?

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