The International New York Times
August 28th, 2014

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Op-Ed Writer

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — According to CNN, there are no introverts in Brazil. “It’s a vivacious culture that can bring you out of your shell, help you unwind and have the best time of your life,” reads an article about visiting Brazil, which also highlights our country’s loud conversations, blaring car horns and “sound trucks blasting advertisements through the neighborhood from 16 speakers.”

This is, of course, like any attempt to reduce a whole culture to a few lines, a stereotypical and lazy portrait of us. But there’s some truth in it. Here, as in other parts of the world, extroverts make so much noise that nobody else has the chance to be heard.

In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” the American writer Susan Cain says that introversion “is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” while extroversion is “turned into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” Extroverts have set up their rules and asked us to follow; therefore all Brazilians must be vivacious and friendly, kissing strangers as much as possible and dancing forró like there’s no tomorrow.

This is especially contradictory when applied to my career. If you’ve chosen to be a writer, as I have, it probably means you enjoy being alone and expressing yourself in writing. Of course it doesn’t necessarily imply that you are a hermit, but it means, for sure, that socializing should be optional. Not an integral part of your career.

But I’m told exactly the opposite, year after year. So let’s be clear about this: Giving lectures, engaging in literary events and going on book tours are not my job. My job is sitting on a chair and writing. All the rest may be beneficial to my “public image” or my books’ sales, but it’s not obligatory. (Ask J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust or Gustave Flaubert.)

And yet the Internet is full of networking tips, warning that “good writing skills and original ideas aren’t enough to make you a success in this business. You need kick-ass marketing skills, too.” Others talk about the “promotional demands of a successful writing career.”

Even Ms. Cain, the ultimate advocate for introverts, had to convince her publisher that she was pseudo-extrovert enough to promote “Quiet.” She endured a year of public-speaking classes before going on her book tour and giving a lecture at a TED conference. In her book, she mentions a very common feeling among introverts: While driving to present a seminar, she found herself “praying for calamity — a flood or a small earthquake, maybe — anything so I don’t have to go through with this.”

I know what she means. I sometimes tell myself that I may die before my next public speaking appointment, and this is a soothing thought.

I’ve always been shy. I never enjoyed attending loud parties with too many children. During class breaks, I preferred reading and listening to music. Since kindergarten, I’ve been told that this was a problem and that I needed to change. In high school, I was told by a counselor that I would never succeed in life unless I looked people in the eye. (She was clearly a mutant alien who wanted to feed on my soul, and I wasn’t falling for it.) Once I was playing volleyball and she took me aside just to give me a harsh written warning, saying that if my “antisocial” behavior continued, I’d be suspended for two days. I suppose being able to play team sports didn’t count.

I got my revenge when I wrote a graphic novel, inspired by her, whose plot employed some innocent Rube Goldberg machines.

It’s likely that I’ve always been this way. According to research by Jerome Kagan, then a Harvard psychologist, people’s temperament is detectable very early in life and is likely to be partly inherited. In this sense, introversion is best understood as a kind of hypersensitivity. Babies who kicked and screamed more in the face of outside stimulation — those who, in other words, were highly sensitive to it — were likely to grow up to be introverts, he found. Less reactive babies, who needed more stimulation to get them interested and involved, had a bias toward becoming extroverts. This is “the long shadow of temperament,” as he titled his 2004 book, written with Nancy Snidman.

Introversion is not an illness, a social flaw that demands to be cured or concealed. Despite still not looking people in the eye, I’ve managed to live and work as I please. I’ve just assumed that society’s demands for mingling and socializing at all costs were annoyances that I must regard as facts of life.

But last month, after scheduling some lectures for the Goteborg Book Fair in Sweden and finding myself strongly wishing to break a leg or rupture a cerebral artery or two, I had a realization: I would never tell an extrovert what he should do with his life. I would never say: “You need to socialize less. Go home and stay there for a few days, read some books and spend some quality time with yourself. Just stop interacting all the time.”

I know this would be absurd. So why do extroverts feel so free to impose their values on others?

Vanessa Barbara, a novelist and columnist for the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, edits the literary website A Hortaliça.