Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Why do some people love a good one-on-one conversation, while others thrive during group activities? What makes a person act reserved versus loudmouthed? Is ‘shy’ the same thing as ‘introverted’? Quiet, the recent best-seller by Susan Cain, contains the answers to these perennial questions and a great deal more.
At heart, Quiet is about two distinct styles of thought and behavior. On the one hand, there are extroverts. These people tend to express themselves more effusively, and enjoy a good bounce from one topic to another. Overall, extroverts are less sensitive to stimulation, which means that in order to feel properly stimulated they need to explore and seek out novelty. At a party, extroverts would be the ones mingling in the center of the room.
On the other hand are introverts, who exhibit intense focus, tend to speak more softly, and often find loud environments (such as parties) tiresome and overstimulating. A common misconception is that introverts are asocial, but this is untrue. They just prefer a more low-key, contemplative style of interaction. At a party, introverts would be the people hanging out towards the edges of the room, engaged in side conversations.
Cain’s central point in Quiet is that, from the thumping presentation halls of Tony Robbins to the adrenaline fueled New York Stock Exchange, American society has come to worship the extroverts and forgotten that introverts also possess a unique and valuable skill set. Despite keen insights, introverts are getting lost in the noise.
Well-meaning parents of the midcentury agreed that quiet was unacceptable and gregariousness ideal for both girls and boys. Some discouraged children from solitary and serious hobbies, like classical music, that could make them unpopular. They sent their kids to school at increasingly young ages, where the main assignment was learning to socialize. Introverted children were often singled out as problem cases (a situation familiar to anyone with an introverted child today). (Cain, 2012, p. 27)
Through eleven chapters and a conclusion, Quiet articulates and seeks to address this imbalance. Cain begins by outlining how Americans previously esteemed the “Cult of Character”, where calm dignity and moral uprightness were the mark of someone’s value. However, over time the Cult of Character was replaced by the animated and gregarious “Extrovert Ideal”, where an outsized personality and ability to keep up appearances became the primary indicator’s of one’s worth. After outlining this shift, part two goes on to explore how it is that people wind up either extroverted or introverted. Next, Cain briefly asks whether every culture buys into the Extrovert Ideal equally (Spoiler alert: Asia remains relatively mellow). The final section is practical, offering advice on how introverts can find a niche and thrive in a society currently dominated by extroversion.
Quiet accomplishes the uncommon feat of being simultaneously sprawling and intimate. In terms of content, Cain is unafraid to explore our nuanced social aquarium from a number of revealing angles. Some of Cain’s best early evidence focuses on the emerging science surrounding personality and temperament. In one longitudinal study, babies were introduced to new experiences like the smell of rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip in order to test their sensitivity to novel stimuli. The more reactive, vocal babies actually turned out to be the quieter ones later in life; since they were more sensitive to stimulation, they were more likely to become withdrawn. Another of Cain’s wellsprings is fieldwork. One of her visits is to the Harvard Business School, perhaps the world capital of extroversion, where social networking is practiced with the endurance and intensity of an Olympic triathlon. Cain also leverages cultural analyses, such as her delightful breakdown of early 1900s advertisements.
While early print ads were straightforward product announcements... the new personality-driven ads cast consumers as performers with stage fright from which only the advertiser’s product might rescue them. These ads focused obsessively on the hostile glare of the public spotlight. “ALL AROUND YOU PEOPLE ARE JUDGING YOU SILENTLY,” warned a 1922 ad for Woodbury’s soap. “CRITICAL EYES ARE SIZING YOU UP RIGHT NOW,” advised the Williams Shaving Cream company. (Cain, 2012, p. 24)
Despite its sweeping subject matter, Cain never loses sight of our personal investment in her queries. Whether in a story from a Silicon Valley high school student, or Cain’s reflections on her own relationship with her husband, the lives of real people are never overwhelmed or underappreciated. This empathy also shines through in Cain’s warm writing. It’s possible to imagine yourself sitting next to a fire, cup of tea in hand, listening to Cain share her discoveries. And though Quiet’s focus is the untapped power of introverts, it never feels like an attack on extroverts. There’s a sense that, although Cain considers herself an introvert, she respects both personality styles fully.
Chapter 11 – “How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can't Hear Them” – should be of particular interest to parents and teachers. Cain has found that, in the current climate, even good parents will often become anxious when their child seems shy or apprehensive. Is their child developing abnormally? Are they on the dangerous road to becoming antisocial? Cain cautions parents against this sort of overreaction. She estimates that somewhere between 30-50% of people are introverted. Children who get pathologized just because they value some down time to recharge, or like a small number of close friends more than a racous gang, may internalize the belief that they are atypical and develop unnecessary social anxiety. And the parent’s role certainly is not to force introverted children into maladaptive extroverted conformity. Rather, according to Cain parents should:
- Reassure their children that their style of thought and interaction are quite normal
- Seek out encouraging social opportunities which match the child’s behavioral style and current level of social skill
- Patiently encourage exploration, expanding a child's comfort zone while communicating about and respecting their limits and preferences
An understated book with far-reaching implications, Quiet answers so many questions so very well that it is a book practically begging to be read by everyone. I fall into the introvert camp. I take a long time thinking about things, and when I’m done I usually have a few pointed criticisms to deliver. But after a long, slow, deliberate read of Quiet, I am thoroughly impressed. Rarely if ever have I encountered a more deserving A+ book.