Rare is the book that changes not just how I see the world, but how I see myself. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is just such a book.
Quiet is a science and research-based accounting of what introversion is and how it interacts with the hyper-extroverted American culture. What Cain says, primarily, is that introversion is just as valid as extroversion and carries some advantages that extroversion lacks. She proves this with example after example after example: scientific studies that show how the extrovert ideal of action over caution can lead to disastrous consequences (and how it contributed to the recent financial collapse), a detailed account of how Asian communities prosper despite largely rejecting extroversion in favor of introversion, a lengthy discussion of the problems with meetings and collective brainstorming, and on and on.
Cain hits the ground running with an explanation of the change from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality:
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.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a culture that values introversion and one that values extroversion. America today is largely style over substance and, Cain asserts, the outsized value of extroversion has a lot to do with that.
Her book is unimpeachable proof of that assertion, but to her credit, Cain does not indict extroversion except for where it marginalizes introversion. She points out that both sides can learn from each other. Extroverts can stand to be quite and read up and introverts can stand to speak up about what they know.
The aspect of this book I found the most personally significant, however, is where she carefully explains that there is nothing wrong with introverts. In fact, there is a good deal of genetic predisposition and several good evolutionary reasons for introverts to exist. Indeed, they make up something like 40 percent of the population and outperform extroverts in both high school and college, not because of an innate difference in intelligence, but because they value time spent quiet and focused on a task.
I grew up with a mother who constantly told me I spent too much time alone. That I needed to be out among people. I believed her because, frankly, that’s how America works, but it never felt quite right to me. Oh, of course, I love seeing friends and going out and whatnot, but I also find it enormously draining and need time alone to recover from it. Unbeknownst to me, this is completely normal. As is my tendency to obsessively research topics that interest me. I’m simply a run-of-the-mill introvert. Reading this was unbelievably comforting and liberating.
After spending two-thirds of the book demolishing the extrovert ideal, Cain spends the final third focusing on how the two can function together. When should introverts fake extroversion? How do introverts communicate with extroverts (and vice versa)? And, most informatively for a teacher and parent of an introverted little girl, how do we nurture and educate introverted children?
In Quiet, Cain makes a convincing argument for why we should not expect round pegs to fit into square holes and should, instead, value that roundness, but she also tells plenty of stories. This book is beautifully written and wonderfully balanced between anecdote and data. Be you extrovert or introvert, I can’t recommend it highly enough.