Book reviews: On introversion

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

Title Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
Author Susan Cain
Pages 352
Publisher Viking
Year 2012
ISBN 978 0 670 91676 4
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Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture

Title Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture
Author Adam S. McHugh
Pages 222
Publisher InterVarsity Press
Year 2009
ISBN 978 0 8308 3702 1
Purchase Koorong

We live in a world that thrives in extroversion. As a society, we look to those who are talkative, charismatic and gregarious to be our role models and leaders, whether in politics or business or entertainment. Even at church, the way we present what a Christian life should be run the risk of extolling extroversion as the norm.

I don't fit into any of those categories. Over the past few months I have been doing quite a bit of thinking on how introverts should approach Christian ministry—an activity that inherently involves dealing with people.

And so these two books provide useful insights on introversion. They explore the nature of introversion, how Western culture (including churches) discourage it, the strengths that introverts bring, and how introverts can live life as introverts.

In Quiet, Cain explores the history of the cultural elevation of extroversion and the biological factors which strongly influence introversion. After a brief detour on extroversion in Asian cultures, she then moves on to explain how introverts can act and communicated like an extrovert temporarily as the need arises, and deals with some practical issues about dealing with people with other temperaments, and with introverted children.

One of the most useful insights is that Introversion is different from shyness. Introversion is a temperament that is associated with, among other things, preference for lower levels of external stimulation. It is an inherent trait in people and is influenced by neurological factors. Shyness, on the other hand, is a condition that is associated with the fear of social rejection. And so you can have shy introverts as well as non-shy introverts.

Temperament vs. anxiety

What this means us that the ways (both psychologically and spiritually) of managing introversion and shyness are different. For introversion, it's about structuring the timing, frequency and type of interaction you have so that you can recharge. For shyness it's about learning whose opinion really counts (which this short book is particularly helpful).

The other useful contribution of the book is dispelling the myth that being quiet in social settings means not participating, or being anti-social. As McHugh recalled in his book an introverted daughter saying to her mother, "It's never quiet in my head." Introverted people are participating in their quietness—just differently. They are observing, processing, finding links and meaning to what's been said. They are the ones who will provide the insights when others have all but forgotten what's being said.

Which leads me to the next book, McHugh's Introverts in the Church. In addition to laying some of the same groundwork on the nature of introversion, he examines what this means to several areas of Christian life: spirituality, church, leadership and evangelism.

I'm surprised that I was a little disappointed with the book. Perhaps it's because it was written from an American perspective, where evangelical churches are much more extroverted than the ones in Sydney. But I think that the different models for Christian life presented in the book are a bit of an overreaction to the extroverted culture, and may risk unintended consequences.

Take, for example, the areas of spirituality and Christian meetings. McHugh suggests that introverts may find contemplative spirituality (including sensing God at a level transcending words) and non-verbal styles of services more attractive. Maybe they do, but I would think that this may confuse the issue. Introverts generally don't have a problem with words, but with overstimulation by having too many things spoken out loud at once. Given that God speaks to us in these last days in words-as-flesh, it may be more useful to look at quieter ways of engaging with God in words, rather than moving from words altogether.

I was originally hoping for a ready-made guide to Christian ministry for introverted souls. I did not get that. However, both books provide an interesting start on my thinking through these issues. I'll post the fruits of that thinking here, so stay tuned.

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