It doesn’t take long for most people who know me to figure out that I’m an introvert. I’m far more comfortable in groups of two or three than in groups of ten or twelve. I tend to hang back, listen, and observe in large social gatherings, or I find one or two conversation partners and stick close to them. And that’s if I make myself go! In general, I’d rather be sitting at home with a book. I’ve come to accept and embrace my introversion, but there are times when I think certain aspects of life would be easier if I were more extroverted and outgoing. What introvert hasn’t?
In Quiet, Susan Cain discusses introversion and some of the reasons many introverts feel out of step in U.S. society today. In a nutshell, the U.S. has in the last century shifted from what Cain calls a culture of character to a culture of personality. Being stalwart and dedicated has become less valued than being magnetic and effusive. Those with the winning personalities are more likely to advance in the workplace, while those who are equally capable—perhaps even more capable—are shut out of leadership. She discusses how this tendency plays out not just at work, but also in schools, churches, and personal relationships. And she explains how in leaving introverts out of leadership, society loses many valuable qualities—such as caution and persistence—that introverts tend to share.
In describing introversion, Cain discusses a variety of studies that show how introversion tends to coexist with other characteristics, such as high sensitivity, as psychological researcher Dr. Elaine Aron has explained. Cain explains the science behind these studies in clear and accessible terms and with plenty of examples to show how these scientific discoveries might play out in life. She also explores the physiological differences between introverts and extroverts and how much influence our genetic make-up, environment, and free will might have over our introversion.
Most readers will probably, like me, constantly compare themselves with Cain’s descriptions of common qualities of introverts. I could absolutely see myself in her descriptions of highly reactive, highly sensitive, and non-reward-seeking individuals, although I could also recall plenty of times and situations when my actions and feelings did not fit those descriptions. Cain points out that not all introverts share all of these characteristics, and many extroverts might share some of them. In addition, an introvert, who is more likely to be highly reactive to stimuli than an extrovert, might be more reactive to some stimuli than to others. So one person might be highly sensitive to noise, while another might react strongly to coffee.
This is a key fact for readers of this book to keep in mind because I think it would be all too easy to come away from this book with the idea that all introverts are fragile, frightened, and highly sensitive people, when the extent to which we have those qualities, and the situations in which they will manifest themselves, vary a great deal. Cain acknowledges this, often, but because her examples tend to show introverts demonstrating these qualities or learning to surmount them, it’s easy to forget that not all of us share the same fears, such as a fear of public speaking. As it happens, I enjoy public speaking as long as I have time to prepare and know what I’m talking about. (That desire for preparation is a typical introvert quality.) It’s not a fear I have to surmount—I’m not afraid of it and never have been. Parties, on the other hand, terrify me! Cain does describe a college professor who is a wonderful and comfortable public speaker who goes to hide in the restroom after speaking so he won’t have to go to a social lunch with the bigwigs who invited him to speak. I got the impression, however, that Cain saw the fact of his ease and apparent comfort at public speaking to be an oddity, when to me it seemed perfectly natural.
I also found the distinction between shyness and introversion to be difficult to sort out. Cain notes that there’s a difference, but I didn’t think her explanation was clear or particularly convincing. The main difference as she explains it seems to be that shyness stems from a fear of rejection or of doing something wrong, whereas introversion does not. I know I’m an introvert, and I could fairly be described as shy in some situations, but I don’t think my shyness is necessarily about fear of rejection or of error. Often, it’s simply a matter of not knowing what to say in social situations and not having the energy to figure it out. The truth is, it’s hard for me to work out where my shyness ends and my introversion begins, but it’s something I’d like to understand.
Besides describing introversion itself, Cain also explores when and how introverts might shed their introversion temporarily and whether it’s better to embrace our cautious natures or to step out and take big risks more typical of extroverts. Her discussion here seemed really smart and practical. Mostly, it boiled down to the idea that when we’re passionate about something, we’ll be more naturally inclined to step outside our comfort zone and that it can be valuable to do so, even if we have to “fake” a little extroversion. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to believe that extroversion is superior. Both temperaments are valuable, even essential. In fact, introverts can often make use of their best qualities to succeed in negotiations and social situations without ever pretending to be something they aren’t.
Other chapters discuss introversion and extroversion in different cultures, parenting and educating introverted children, and marriages between introverts and extroverts. There was a lot of information here and many more things I could comment on. Many of you will probably be interested to read about the value of online collaboration and sharing for introverts. And then there’s the introvert’s approach to friendship, hunger for deep conversation, and impatience with small talk, except in already established close relationships where small talk is embraced and valued. So interesting, and certainly true for me. I wanted to stand up and cheer when she talked about how there are different ways of being successful. So, so true, and so important to remember society pushes a particular idea of success .
As you can see, there’s a lot in this book to talk about. Some of you might be wondering how this compares to The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney, which got a lot of attention several years ago. I thought Quiet was far and away the better book. For one thing, it goes into more depth and explores introversion from more angles. Laney’s book was too basic and obvious; plus it skewed too far in the direction of telling introverts how to make themselves more extroverted so they can succeed. Cain offers a few ideas in that direction, but she also suggests that society itself needs to rethink its values when determining who has leadership potential and what qualities we value. I prefer Cain’s approach.