Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
I will confess up front that I first approached this book with some suspicion.
A book championing the merits of introverts could well be, I decided, one of those dreaded versions of self-help books that relies on hyped-up rhetoric and generalisation in order to drive home an over-simplified, hyper-positive message; something along the lines of: “You are a wonderful human being ― better than those nasty loud extroverts. Repeat this mantra (quietly, of course) every day for a more fulfilling life. Hurrah!”
It would be all too easy for such a book to polarise the issues, assigning all people to one or other end of a personality yardstick, where all introverts are white and all extroverts are black, resolutely ignoring the individual shades of greys in-between. Besides, my suspicions reminded me, the author is American. What could someone from the world’s most gung-ho and outspoken nation possibly have to tell us about introversion?
That will teach me to indulge in casual racism. Or perhaps my casual racism was merely misplaced, since being part of a “nation of extroverts” (Cain’s words) seems to give the author extra motivation to reveal and appreciate the quieter benefits of introversion.
At any rate, my fears were allayed before I had even finished the introduction to Quiet, in which Cain tackles the complexity of the introvert/extrovert classification. She unmasks ‘closet introverts’ who hide their introvert tendencies behind more outgoing personas, thereby fooling many into believing that they are extroverts through and through, when, in truth, they are far more comfortable out of the limelight. All introverts, she acknowledges, are not the same. Yet, there are certain traits ― preferences, fears, desires, reactions ― that can be classified as introvert, and are shared at the deepest level of innate character by many people. I recognise them well, for I am one of them. And so is Susan Cain.
Quiet is a balanced, considered, and well-researched approach to the topic of introversion: what it is, what it might entail, how it is historically and culturally perceived and valued (or not), its relative and practical pitfalls and merits. Susan’s writing style is appealing and engaging: intelligent, yet informal, balancing anecdotal narrative and personal belief with factual reportage and scientific research. She makes us feel as though we are with her on her journey of exploration, researching and experiencing the distinct but interrelated worlds of biology, psychology, religion, business, education, culture, and family.
We look at history, observing a societal shift over the past century from a culture of character (serious, disciplined, honourable, sometimes uptight, and inhibited) to a culture of personality (bold, performance-based, entertaining, sometimes fake, and brash). This is American history, of course, but who could deny the influence of 20th-century American culture on the world?
We look at physiology, discovering observed links between introversion and a highly reactive organ called the amygdala within the brain. We learn that descriptions such as ‘thick-skinned’ and the concept of ‘cool’ go beyond metaphor: introverts have apparently been shown to sweat more than extroverts. Sociopaths are ultra-cool. Alcohol is cool. Here, have a glass of extroversion.
We follow Susan into a self-help seminar run by a dynamic extrovert who promises to ‘unleash the power within’; into a world-famous business school, where socialising is ‘an extreme sport’; into an evangelical church that makes its members feel, ‘If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love’. Extroversion, it seems, is expected and favoured in practically every social arena. Job advertisements for office workers and priests alike stipulate the need for ‘team workers’, while group work is now an essential part of the primary school curriculum. In a world where fear of public speaking is now considered to be a disease, introverts are encouraged to feel shame for their antisocial tendencies, and preferably change their ways.
Personally, I believe it’s not always a bad thing to learn how to deal with situations that challenge innate introvert tendencies. I’ve gained a great sense of power and freedom by facing some of my classically introvert fears, and realising what I’m capable of achieving ― enjoying, even ― when I step out of my comfort zone. But I also welcome Cain’s assertion that the natural talents of introverts should likewise be appreciated and valued within society, and extroverts encouraged to respect and develop these traits, too.
For example, any graduate recruitment departments currently championing presentation, interviewing, and teamwork skills over academic achievement may want to take particular note of Cain’s chapter on the ‘myth of charismatic leadership’. Here she points out that not just some, but many of the most successful leaders across societies and businesses have in fact been introverts, from Gandhi to Bill Gates. She reveals the misgivings of a business tutor, who acknowledges that his extrovert students are “very good at getting their way. But that doesn’t mean they’re going the right way”. And she looks at the global financial crisis, in which “Too much power was concentrated in the hands of aggressive risk-takers”, whose decisions were ‘proved right’ in the short-term, so were rewarded and encouraged, only for the cautious, undervalued naysayers to be truly proved right in the longer term, once risks stopped paying off and economies crashed.
Yet, it’s not all woe and despair for extroverts. We learn that, while introverts can be more receptive to the ideas of others, extroverts can be more inspirational, and that work-groups in psychological studies thrive best when the talents of both introverts and extroverts are put to good use. On a more personal level, Cain admits that, when surrounded by introverts, she can’t help but miss the ‘cool’ people.
Quiet urges us to give a place in our varied social spheres to every type of person; to listen as well as talk; to value careful preparation as well as gregarious spontaneity; to encourage quiet reflection as well as social interaction. I can’t help but like its message. Perhaps that’s because I’m an introvert. Or perhaps it’s self-evident that the world needs balance in order to survive, and people need mutual respect in order to thrive.
Either way, I challenge introverts and extroverts alike not to appreciate the witty wisdom of Susan’s assertion that, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. As a writer, I naturally choose the desk.
How about you?