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Do quiet people need a different set of rules?

Britney Spears has always been a profound thinker.

From the moment she sang Hit Me Baby One More Time we knew she was not only a symbol of empowerment for women everywhere, she also deeply considered the nuances of the world around her.

So it came as no surprise when in late 2008, she famously declared, “there’s only two types of people in the world, the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe”. (Just try and read this without singing it. JUST TRY).

What Britney was clearly referring to were the personality styles of extraversion (the entertainers) and introversion (the observers).

While it is surprising that I would take issue with lyrics from a singer who had the top 30 hit I’m A Slave 4 U when I was 11 years old (#rolemodel), I’m just not sure that with seven billion people in the world, we can be meaningfully categorised into ‘the ones that entertain’, and ‘the ones that observe’.

In fact, whenever I hear an argument (or see a pseudo-inspirational Internet quote) that begins with the assumption ‘there are two types of people in this world’, I automatically cringe, and discount all the words that follow.

And it’s not just Britney – some incredibly formative figures have used this cliché. Mark Twain thought there were people who accomplished things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. Marlo Thomas said that there were givers, and there were takers.

More recently, Susan Cain started The Quiet Revolution, based on the concepts of introversion and extraversion. Specifically, she argued there is a significant bias against introverts in western culture.

Cain wants our schools and workplaces to better cater to introverts, she wants to help parent’s support their introverted kids, and she wants to start a ‘quiet community’ to achieve these goals.

Being a quiet person myself, it may seem odd for me to challenge Cain’s argument. But essentially, I want to argue that it might be unhelpful to place people into distinct personality categories.

As a twin, I’ve been victim to such categorisations for most of my life. In order for people to understand you (and more importantly, WHY on earth there are two of you) they need to define you in terms of opposing qualities.

There has to be a smart one, a sporty one, a funny one, a pretty one, a creative one, a serious one, a nice one, a weird one, and the one with the claw-like hands (oh, sorry, that’s just me).

being an introvert
Clare with her twin sister Jessie.
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My twin and I are fraternal, but while we only share around half of our genetic information (the same as regular siblings), we are incredibly similar. It probably has something to do with being conceived at the same time (*shudders*), sharing a womb for nine months (although my sister ate all the food apparently – rude), being born within minutes of each other, and sharing crucial life experiences.

Perhaps because we are so similar, people try to define us by our differences. Of course, the most enduring dichotomy has to do with introversion and extraversion.

There is some truth to it. When we discovered Sophia Grace and Rosie (AKA the greatest thing to happen to the internet in the last decade), we joked that my sister was definitely Sophia Grace while I was definitely Rosie.

It’s incredibly unclear why Rosie has a microphone, when she has literally never sung a word.

I have always been the Rosie of our relationship. I was held back at lunchtime in kindergarten because the teacher wouldn’t let me go out until I stopped crying. She clearly didn’t understand all of my feelings – there were just sooo many feelings. I ambitiously tried to be part of the school musical in high school in order to ‘come out of my shell’, but the teacher literally hit me over the head with the script because I A) wasn’t being enthusiastic enough and B) clearly didn’t give a crap about the musical.

Note: Oklahoma is a bad, bad musical.

Being so quiet, I’m regularly frustrated by the fact that the loudest people are often perceived as the ones who have the most to say. Excuse me, I also have things to say. I’m just saying them in my head, where they will be critically discussed at length before they come out of my mouth-hole.

Therefore, when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’, I saw a lot of myself. From the outside, I am her archetypal introvert.

the quiet revolution
Susan Cain’s book, ‘Quiet’.
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Cain passionately argues for people like me. She says it’s okay to spend New Years Eve alone, or cross the street to avoid having to speak to random acquaintances, if that’s what makes you happy.

In what Cain describes as ‘The North and South of Temperament’, she characterises Rosa Parks as the introvert, and Reverend Martin Luther King as the extravert, who together, changed the course of American history.

Ultimately, she argues that we’ve developed a bias towards extraverts, and that we need to consider the quieter among us when we design our schools and workplaces. After all, creativity and innovation have often emerged from individuals who spent a great deal of their time in solitude.

Not really your ‘group work’ kinda guy.

While I do agree that quieter individuals are routinely underestimated, and it’s important to give people the opportunity to figure things out on their own at school and in the workplace, I fundamentally disagree that people can be separated into two categories in any meaningful way.

My worry is that ideas around personality become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, there’s a fair amount of evidence that proves they do. A classic research study examining this very idea explored the Ashanti people in Africa, who sincerely believe that the day of the week on which a person is born has a lot to do with their personality. In particular, boys born on a Wednesday are believed to be violent and aggressive.

Indeed, within the Ashanti people, boys born on a Wednesday are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violent behaviour.

Not because they are innately more violent, but because people tend to live up to what is expected of them.
Here’s a look at some outrageously successful introverts:

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So when we categorise people as introverts, or extroverts, or as creative, or funny, or serious, it’s likely that they instinctively embody this quality, rather than being their complex and contradictory self.

As a twin, who has been consistently categorised as ‘the quiet one’, ‘the cautious one’, or the ‘the logical one’, I just don’t believe that these ‘binary’ ideas of personality are particularly helpful. They’re stereotypical and limiting.

People who know me well know that I’m not necessarily Susan Cain’s introvert – I LOVE public speaking, often enjoy small talk (especially when it’s about The Bachelorette), and my ideas gain clarity and depth when they’re discussed with others.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s Susan Cain, or Mark Twain, or Britney Spears – there are not ‘two types of people in the world’, there are seven billion, and that’s what makes it all so interesting.

People can do both Britney. They can do both.

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