Home / Mint-lounge / In defence of the quiet

At the office of television news channel Times Now in Mumbai’s Lower Parel, editor-in-chief and news anchor Arnab Goswami’s voice booms across from the studio. He has cricket commentator Krishnamachari Srikkanth pinned with his unflinching gaze and locked in verbal combat. Goswami asks: “Is (Virender) Sehwag being rested to allow...Sachin (Tendulkar) to score his record?" Srikkanth, caught unawares, gasps at the brutality of the hit. Goswami carries a knowing half-smile. Srikkanth answers, and Goswami fires again.

Goswami’s questions are not questions, they are weapons of an age that constructed him: basic, lethal, direct, and stockpiled with a personal measure of accountability. His are the questions-elect of those being deployed across social media forums, at rallies, propelling a shoe-throwing, politician-slapping generation to demand answers. For whom flow the hash tags: #FTW. #Score. #Win.

And then there is the deafening quietness of those being out-shouted. Those unfollowed on Twitter because we expect of them quicker repartee, a sharper wit, a smoothly punchlined fragment of breaking news, all in a retweetable quotable quote, and who disappoint. Where the prototype is aggression, those who go against the norm are perceived to be failures.

A study, Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential? jointly conducted by the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, US (published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, March 2011), defined the paradox of the bias: Leaders valued “innovation"; the most and yet, by definition, “innovative" men, who must think against the grain, are rarely attributed leadership qualities. They are often nonconformist, unorthodox, uncertain, even tentative, like their untested ideas. The study found organizations typically biased towards leadership, and against creativity.

Illustration by Jayachandran Nanu/Mint

Francesca Gino is associate professor of business administration in the negotiation, organizations and markets unit at Harvard Business School, US, and author of the ongoing study, Stop Stealing the Spotlight: The Perils of Extraverted Leadership. Gino is researching the effects of quietness on teamwork, and she explains: “There is evidence that extraverted leaders are perceived as more effective in the workplace. Our research suggests that there is more to the story."

How powerless, truly, are the quiet?

In Bombay House, the south Mumbai power centre jocularly known to insiders as South Block, is the cloistered, minimalist office of reticent industrialist Ratan Tata. The Tata group has just projected an estimated revenue of $500 billion (Rs 25 trillion) by 2022. Ratan Tata is probably the only victim of the Radia tapes who feels more personally violated by the intrusion than alarmed by the contents of his speech made public, and still has a plea to protect his privacy pending in the Supreme Court. His Twitter account in 2011 sat at 750 followers for about a month, before he was discovered online. In June 2008, when the Tata Motors acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover made headlines worldwide, Ratan Tata issued a five-line quote in a one-page press release. There was no press conference. The bid for the UK-headquartered Cable&Wireless Worldwide is expected to go down with similar reserve.

In November 2008, when The Taj Mahal Palace hotel shook with terrorist attacks, pushing every onlooker to tears, shoulders slumped, despair creasing his face, Ratan Tata at his most defeated, even with the maximum provocation to shake his fists and demand answers for various failures, stood a picture of quiet dignity at its burning door.

This is the Tata way. It is inherent, his office points out: It was Jamsetji Tata who quietly responded to the promise to “eat every pound of steel the Tatas make", by making it. In whatever way the new heir to the throne, Cyrus Mistry, nephew of noted reclusive industrialist Shapoorji Pallonji, may differ from his mentor, Ratan Tata, it will not be in the quality of his reserve, admits the company. “From Jamsetji Tata’s time, the Tatas have valued the quality of reserve. It is a philosophy we follow to this day," says Tata Motors’ spokesperson Debasis Ray. “It is, in fact, the culture that is encouraged within the company and that we look for, and it is followed by Mr Tata and Mr Mistry. Mr Tata always says ‘Let your actions speak louder than words, and if in evidence your actions have truly spoken, then you will have no need for words.’ Also, he feels, how can he talk about himself? Such words, if at all, must come from others."

Résumés that have the least to say, say the most, Ray points out, recalling a Financial Times column (“The Fine Art of Penning Your Own Brief Bio", by Lucy Kellaway, 19 February) that made the distinction between the résumés of famous men. “Ronald Reagan’s CV (curriculum vitae) just had one line on it: President, United States. It’s the people who have to explain a lot who do the most talking."

Industrialist Azim Premji practises a measured engagement with the media. Ahmed Patel is Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s almost-mythical political secretary. As is designer Shahab Durazi in fashion circles, and Vikram Seth in writerly ones. Within the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, “we scientists just don’t really know how to talk about what we do", confesses TIFR director Mustansir Barma. When author Amitav Ghosh recently wrote—“As a child I was drawn to books because they were a refuge from a world that seemed to be at war with the very idea of an inner life. That world has become today exponentially more noisy, crowded and intrusive than ever before"—he was begging off from modern-day chaos and reflecting psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s first classification of his theory of temperaments at the turn of the 20th century. Jung’s distinction was that “extraversion is the outward flow of energy and introversion, the inward flow of personal energy", and there was space for the merits of both.

Yet, ever since Dale Carnegie launched a career out of making friends and influencing people, gregariousness has been the mantra capitalism has kowtowed to. The Harvard Business School model is the can-do spirit of the extrovert, mirrored across the world, churning out armies of gregarious men and women. Arun Pereira, a faculty member at ISB, says, “Given that the objective of most B-schools is to produce business leaders, they will actively encourage the extroverted individual rather than a shy, introverted one."

The introvert, on the other hand, is the guy who is repeatedly told to “snap out of it".

Geetha Krishnan, director, centre for executive education at ISB, embodies the pressures of speaking up. “Having grown up in a small town, I did not possess the language and tone of urban India. And the confidence to believe that I can carry on without it. This made me conscious of speaking out in a group. It did not help that my English was mid-20th century Brit. So for a long time, I just kept quiet. Gradually, I guess I did not do anything conscious about it, but perhaps the need for me to speak out became more prominent because my silence was drawing more attention. I also looked much younger than my age, and a client thought my executive, who reported to me, was my manager. So I started growing a beard. Which survives even now, 13 years on," he says.

Today, Krishnan has acquired the confidence to be his quiet self. “I would tell students, don’t worry about it. Unless you are in show business, your social personality is not a big ingredient in your success. A lot of people attribute Apple’s success to Steve Jobs. Without discrediting the man, would he have been half as successful if Apple products were not so outstanding? The people who create those products are perhaps as socially uncomfortable as most of us."

In her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, former Wall Street lawyer Susan Cain explains why it is necessary to define the introvert’s ability to influence: “If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good and bad ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day…" Cain’s research suggests the introvert is the guy who prefers a one-on-one conversation, gets people, works with their limitations, and thinks out of the box. Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Larry Page, Bill Schwab and Bill Gates all followed the quiet road to success. All change, it would seem, depends on the recognition of the quiet ideas: the ones that are not always shouted out.

That extroversion is not the absolute in temperamental aspiration is self evident. Gita Piramal, business historian and author of Business Maharajas, gives the example of “the failure of Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher airline. By extending the Kingfisher alcohol brand to an airline and himself, the airline’s problems have not only cast doubts on the financial viability of the group’s alcohol business, but also dented Mallya’s image. Howard Hughes (1905-76) exemplifies extreme introversion. The intrepid aviator, in his later years, was an eccentric with a reclusive lifestyle, caused partly by an obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic pain. Despite the pain, Hughes established a major aircraft manufacturing company and ran a premier airline, TWA (Trans World Airlines)."

The danger lies in that bowing to the demands of the age, those who are unable to achieve extroversion, coach themselves to be what they are not. The social mediator steps in to spark the transformation. When political scion Rahul Gandhi first emerged on the scene and proved his rawness in the arena on a number of occasions, he was hastily pulled out of the limelight and coached into submission by a newly established crack team, known in Delhi’s political circles as “the think tank", headed by the suave 33-year-old Wharton graduate Kanishka Singh. When Gandhi campaigned in Uttar Pradesh for the 2012 assembly elections, he took on taboo subjects like foreign direct investment and took swipes at his rivals like a pro. “The shy persona with a self-declared, back-office role has been replaced by a more aggressive and bolder Gandhi—less averse to taking political risk… When he entered active politics in 2004, Gandhi was uncomfortable in his political role. This awkwardness was thrown into relief by sister Priyanka Vadra’s ease with the public..." said the “Will the Reinvention of Rahul Gandhi Do the Trick?" article, in Mint, 21 December. Singh’s team is credited with the Gandhi makeover. It made him fit into the existing political scenario, but would Gandhi have been better off being himself?

Illustration by Jayachandran Nanu/Mint

Middle-class India too buys into the myth that it is necessary to wear the mask. Hordes of students and young executives set out every day to overcome their inhibitions. On his promotional video, confidence-builder Shiv Khera throws keywords at a seated audience in the hundreds at top corporate firms, and in public sessions. At Dadar in Mumbai, the old chawl building Madhav Wadi is just one of the many rows of buildings that has been turned into a beast of another kind. From floor upon floor hang signboards: Prime English Academy, Focus English Academy, SpeakWell, and so on. Each lures students, children, housewives and sales executives to fork out thousands with the promise of speaking better, “confidence" and “personality development". Inside, in plywood-partitioned rooms, frantic lessons for groups that average 10 motley students are under way by teachers who can barely get by themselves. Further down the road, Bindas Bol, with centres across Mumbai, states: “We offer courses that help people build on their strengths and limitations. Through this course you will know that it is your attitude that determines your altitude."

Goswami believes bluntness of speech is a generational shift. “I represent a generation that is direct, and that demands answers. The older generation believed in certain lines not being crossed with certain people. I have no delusions of grandeur. I am not here to pontificate and socialize with the people I interview. The question people should be asking is not why I am asking my questions loudly, but why no one else is," he says. Much of the translated bravado that Goswami bears for his viewer, explains his TRPs.

The constant pressure of an unrelenting age does not bash the introvert into extinction, though, rather it forces him out in unquiet ways. When Guy Kawasaki, venture capitalist and former Apple evangelist, tweeted in 2008 that he was an “introvert", nobody believed him. When actor Shah Rukh Khan states he is in fact a loner, it is dismissed. The quiet guys reach out, repeatedly, and at some point, either break through the pretence, carrying a mask for life, or eventually give up. Cain writes: “Introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online… and to spend more time on online discussions. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice."

This uncharacteristic behaviour is what causes the same recluses, like Ratan Tata, to tweet pictures of the unseen parts of their lives—their dogs, their interests and details of their day. Because there is no such thing as saying too much in an age of aggression, and while the quiet man is patient enough to try everyone else’s way, it is rare that the noisy world is willing to try his.


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