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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Every Book Its Reader
Nearing its fifth year since publication, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking still generates steady demand and remains a popular book-group choice. Cain makes a powerful case. In a society where outspoken leadership, group collaboration, self-assurance, and boundless enthusiasm are constantly trumpeted as the stuff of champions, where Carnegie’s “win friends and influence people” still holds sway, Cain argues that introversion is not a character flaw.
Au contraire! Cain documents studies showing that introverts get better results at many tasks. In taking the more deliberate course, introverts are less likely to rush decisions in pursuit of quick rewards. Introverts dislike small talk, crowds, and large group collaboration, but they listen well and enjoy exploring deep ideas (with one or two people at a time). They are more empathetic and sensitive to the needs of others. They have longer attention spans, are better writers, and surpass extroverts in designing solutions for complex tasks. These attributes also make them likely to be astute readers.
Research shows that about 20 percent of us fall solidly into the introvert camp, an equal number are extroverted, and the majority balance traits from both sides. If you have any doubts about your own inclinations, a litmus test is to measure your reaction to socializing in large groups. If parties or collaborative projects build your energy, you’re probably an extrovert. If you find them draining, you’re introverted.
Most of the book world—writers, librarians, and readers—are more introverted than extroverted. At gatherings, awkwardness can prevail until someone takes the presenter role or we find our way to pairs or trios to explore deeper subjects. At that point, our ninja listening skills kick in, and we’re better off than most extroverts, who would rather be talking. On the library floor, despite the stereotype, it isn’t unusual for an extroverted patron to shush noisy users more aggressively than anyone on staff. At conferences, the stronghold of networking extroverts in many professions, introverted writer or librarian speakers learn to pretend to be a “people person,” at ease in a crowd, by preparing extensively. As an introverted presenter, I know the phenomenon well, and like others of my tribe, after an hour in the spotlight, I am sapped.
Library literature and education often don’t accommodate introversion. Library leaders are exhorted with the go-getter techniques of the business school, a most extroverted place. It’s often assumed that the best approach in working a desk, leading a program, or advising a reader is to master our fears, slap on a grin, and start a lively conversation. If Cain is correct, this isn’t a recipe for success. Even when we manage to fake a confidence that we probably don’t feel, our audience, which is bookish and thus more likely to be introverted, will be put off by the underlying odor of false enthusiasm, rather than sold by an extrovert’s pitch. We should reexamine our best practices, accounting for this slant toward introversion. Yes, basic standards of public service and friendliness must be maintained, but we need to acknowledge that there is also wisdom found in the introvert way.
There’s a way forward for introverted advisors serving introverted readers. Start with two core tenets of advisory work: first, it’s not about you. If you’re an introvert, hard-selling personal favorites probably won’t feel natural anyway. Your empathy is a strong point and can be used to detect what others will like. We’re better than extroverts at putting our egos aside. Tone down the superlatives, which are likely to turn off an introverted customer (but be mindful of the introvert’s tendency to damn what one is trying to advocate with too-faint praise). Focus on presenting options descriptively but with objectivity. Give them choices; then step aside so they can reflect privately on what they want.
Yes, basic standards of public service and friendliness must be maintained, but we need to acknowledge that there is also wisdom found in the introvert way.
Second, listen more than you talk. Be gentle in asking follow-up questions as you try to expand overly terse answers. If you don’t come on too strong, all but the most extreme introverts may actually enjoy meaningful conversation about books. Recognize that introverts don’t like to air their shame feelings, so tread carefully about topics like pet peeves and guilty pleasures.
Even if both parties can battle through shy tendencies, face-to-face encounters might not be ideal for introverts. Work to strengths instead. Publicize and train in tools like NoveList, Goodreads, and Booklist Online, where one can do one’s own advisory research, as introverts are good with advanced processes and prefer to work anonymously. Design resources that introverts can use without direct interaction. Personalized recommendation forms that can be filled out and submitted at a distance are a great service option for introverts, where both sides in the transaction can work privately, asynchronously. Introverted readers are likely to give careful thought and detail in a form response, while the advisor can shine with a thoughtfully prepared written response. Great displays and book lists with plenty of detail are also introvert friendly.
If you’re introverted, like me (I’m blushing as I type), sensitivity and self-criticism come easily, but put the shame aside. The strengths of introverts made you into a discerning reader, a person who has the knowledge and skills to provide meaningful advisory help. So slap yourself on the back—no, you probably don’t like that, so give yourself a Mona Lisa smile instead—for mining the power of introverts.
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