Cult(ure) of Personality
Do you think you have a "great personality"? When you meet someone, how important are "first impressions"? Is "shyness" always a problem to be overcome? To most of us, just a little common sense can answer these questions. But you'd be surprised to learn that our answers would differ sharply from earlier generations.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain explores the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in American society and its effects on contemporary culture. Ultimately, she hopes to make the case that healthy introverts are necessary to a healthy society. Before she engages her argument, though, she looks at the history of introversion and extroversion. Because culture is often invisible to us, like the air we breathe, most of us would be surprised to learn that extroversion was not always the ideal.
The Rise of the Extrovert
Prior to the Industrial Revolution in America, the ideal man or woman was reserved, respectful, and measured in public. (Think Jane Austen and Downtown Abbey.) But with the dramatic changes brought by urbanization and mass immigration, you can understand why extroversion became beneficial in the decades leading up to and beginning the twentieth century.
Think about it: If you live your entire life in the same small town where you grew up, first impressions aren't all that important -- they're made when you're just a baby, at your cutest. However, if you later move to a big city and work in a business climate, personality becomes tremendously important. Your ability to make good first impressions becomes a life skill. Cain writes:
"Americans found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers... In the increasingly anonymous business and social relationships of the age, one might suspect that anything--including a first impression--had made the crucial difference. Americans responded to these pressures by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company's latest gizmo but also themselves."
"From a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality"
Becoming a nation of self-salesmen changed American culture dramatically. As culture historian Warren Susman writes, we changed from a "Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality." Cain elaborates:
"In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private... But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. 'The social role demanded of [everyone] in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,' Susman famously wrote. 'Every American was to become a performing self.'" [emphasis added]
It makes sense that extroverts excelled in this new environment. And as a result, everyone wanted to be an extrovert. Self-help books changed. Earlier self-help books strengthened readers for "citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity." By the 1920s, self-help books taught readers how to be "magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic." Advertisements shifted from straightforward announcements ("Best Shaving Cream") to appeals to social anxiety. One add for shaving cream read, "Let your face reflect confidence, not worry! It's the look of you by which you are judged most often." Schools focused more on presentation and social skills than book-learning. Social anxiety became a serious psychological and medical issue.
One of Susan Cain's arguments against this new extrovert ideal is that extroversion is only natural for roughly half the population. And as a result, there are a lot of introverts in America struggling to look like extroverts. This keeps introverts from exercising their true gifts, and keeps the culture from enjoying those gifts. As a fellow introvert, that makes a lot of sense.
But the dangers of being a Culture of Personality run much deeper. Most obviously, the emphasis on personality over character is problematic because it's shallow. It encourages hypocrisy. People are rewarded for appearance, not substance. As a result, our ambition as a country is directed primarily toward shaping what people think of us.
This is dangerous. Jesus warns hypocrites, "You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matthew 23:27-28) What would he say about a nation of hypocrites?
Thankfully, Jesus also frees hypocrites. Salvation is by grace through faith, not of works. That means that we don't have to spend our lives performing and pretending to be something we are not. In the gospel, people are presented desperately sinful and unfailingly loved. In light of this, we are truly changed.