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Sarah Sands: Loudmouths and braggarts have had their day

  • @sandsstandard

A former boss once recommended to me hiring a young man he had met at dinner. My heart sank because I knew this man to be bumptious and not that bright. My boss assured me that I was mistaken. The youth was bold, visionary and going places. "Is that what you thought?" I sighed. "No, that is what he told me," he replied.

A colleague and I named this trickery Madison Avenue. If you tell everyone how great you are, chances are people will believe you. Bold, confident and gregarious can easily be mistaken for being gifted.

For years I have noted how alpha self-confidence gets the benefit of the doubt. Strutting men in red braces have been given broadcast shows or, more dangerously, banks to run. They must know what they are talking about, because they are so assertive and combative. They must be worth listening to, because they don't seem to listen to anyone else. I have fled from these men all my life and it turns out I am not alone.

A new book called Quiet examines the cultural bias towards extroverts over introverts. At some point in the last century, we shifted from judging "character" to "personality". Character is associated with judgement and honour. Personality favours boldness and entertainment. Dale Carnegie's book How to Win Friends and Influence People then introduced salesmanship into the psyche. The author of Quiet, Susan Cain, visits Harvard where speaking up and socialising are life's two great virtues. One student boasts that "socialising is an extreme sport". But not everyone's voice can drown out a restaurant. There has to be a place for quiet people, who prefer one-to-one conversations, to observe or read or think.

For some people, happiness is addressing an enormous conference hall, under a spotlight, after a business-class flight. But for many, many others, a greater joy is being at home in pyjamas. Society has made us believe the first is preferable, but I long for the second. It reminds me of a quiet friend who was once courted by an alpha newspaper editor. My friend was promised adrenalin and action. "You will be called a c*** but then we will all go out to a nightclub and get pissed." The friend asked politely if instead he could not be called a c*** and not go to the nightclub.

I have always trusted the judgement of quiet voices above loud ones. Cain makes a convincing case for this in her chapter "Why did Wall Street crash and Warren Buffett prosper?" Alpha males relish stimulation and tend to get overexcited. There is a syndrome called Deal Fever: people lose their heads. It happened to Fred Goodwin. After the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger, a newspaper quoted Ted Turner on the deal: "It's better than sex."

Introverts are less likely to get caught up in team fervour. Warren Buffett, who acts alone and cool-headedly, says that temperament can be decisive in business. Until now, extroverts have been the cultural idea. But the economic and therefore cultural shift from West to East favours the introvert. In a survey of students, Americans rated friends highest who were outgoing and sociable. Asians admired people who were "humble" and "hard working".

No doubt about it, the East is quieter. We had better learn the Japanese proverb: "The wind howls but the mountain remains still." The library wins over the talk show. Enough of the show-offs.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'