by Susan Cain

Cover image

Publisher: Crown
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 0-307-45220-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 263

Buy at Powell's Books

I've always been an introvert. This is something that surprises some people when they first meet me since they equate introversion with shyness, and I'm not at all shy. It surprises others because I'm quite vocal and outspoken in meetings, but introversion also doesn't imply a lack of self-confidence. I can run meetings, give presentations, and argue my perspective in front of just about anyone, but I don't like parties, I crave time by myself, and I could happily go for weeks without seeing another human being. I'm an introvert because I find people draining rather than invigorating, written communication far easier and more comfortable than spoken, and superficial social contact more irritating and frustrating than enjoyable.

If you think think that means there may be something wrong with me, or that I would be happier if "drawn out of my shell," I wish you would read this book. But I suspect its core audience will be people like me: those who are tired of being pushed to conform with extrovert beliefs about social interaction, those who are deeply disgusted by the word "antisocial" or feel pangs of irrational guilt when hearing it, or those who just want to read an examination of interpersonal interactions that, for once, is written by and about people who like quiet and solitude just like they do.

I first encountered Susan Cain via her TED talk, which I think is both the best possible summary of this book and the best advertisement for it. If you've not already seen it, watch it; it's one of the best TED talks I've seen, good enough that I've watched it three times. If you then want more of the same, buy Quiet.

Quiet has, I think, three messages. First, it's a tour of the science: what is introversion and extroversion? Is there evidence that these are real physiological differences? (Spoiler: yes.) What do we know about introversion? How do we know those things — what experiments have been done and what methods have been used? Here, it's a good general introduction, although Cain is careful to point out that it only scratches the surface and there's much more scientific depth. For example, she touches on the connections between introversion and sensitivity to stimulus and points out that they're two separate, if related, categorizations, but doesn't have the space here to clarify the distinctions and tease them apart. But she lays a reasonable foundation, particularly in defense of introversion as a natural, physiologically grounded, scientifically analyzable, common, and healthy way of interacting with the world.

(For those who are curious about the distinctions between introversion and sensitivity, and the argument that most of what Cain says here about introversion is actually about sensitivity, see the blog post by Elaine Aron.)

The second message, the one that resonated with me the most, was Cain's passionate defense of introversion. Business culture (at least in the United States, which is what both Cain and I know) is strongly biased towards extroversion; at least faking extroversion seems to be required for some career advancement. Extrovert culture dominates politics and most public discourse. It's common to find people who consider introversion, particularly in children, to be a sign of unhappiness, poor social adjustment, psychological problems, or other issues that should be "cured" or changed.

Cain's gentle but firm passion in defense of introversion is a breath of fresh air. She attacks open plan offices, the current obsession with group learning and social school settings, and the modern group-think bias towards collaboration over solitude and concentration, and she does that with a combination of polite frustration and the conclusions of multiple studies. Introverts will be cheering as she constructs solid arguments and musters evidence against things that we've always found miserable and then been told we were wrong, short-sighted, or socially inept for finding miserable. I am so utterly on her side in this argument that I have no way of knowing how persuasive it will be, but it's lovely just to hear someone put into words what I feel.

This defense does skew the book. Quiet is not, and does not purport to be, an even-handed presentation of introversion and extroversion. It's written proudly and unabashedly from the introvert's point of view. I'm fine with that: I, like Cain, think the US is saturated in extrovert perspectives and extrovert advice, particularly in the business world, and could use some balancing by activism from the other perspective. But be aware that this is not the book to look to for an objective study of all angles of the introvert/extrovert dichotomy, and I'm not sure her descriptions of extroversion are entirely fair or analogous to those of introversion. The extroversion described here seems somewhat extreme to me. I'm dubious how many extroverts would recognize themselves in it, which partly undermines the argument.

The third message of the book, once Cain has won the introvert's heart, is some advice on how to be a proud introvert, to make the space and find the quiet that one desires, and to balance that against places where one may want and need to act like an extrovert for a while. Cain thankfully does not try to make this too much of the book, nor does she hold up any particular approach as The Answer. All the answers are going to be individual. But she does offer some food for thought, particularly around how to be conscious of and make delibrate choices about one's energy expenditures and one's recharge space. She also captures beautifully something that I've not seen explained this well before: the relief that an introvert can feel in the company of an extrovert who helps navigate social situations, make conversation, and keep discussions going until they can reach the depth and comfort level where the introvert can engage.

I wish anyone in a position of authority over social situations would read this book, or at least watch the TED talk and be aware of the issues. Particularly managers, since (at least in my relatively limited experience) workplace culture is so far skewed towards extroversion that it can be toxic to introverts. Many of the techniques used by extrovert managers, and the goals and advice they give their employees, are simply wrong for introverts, and even damaging. Cain speaks well to the difficulties of empathy between people with very different interaction preferences, such as the problems with extroverts trying to "draw out" introverts who have hit social overload (or sensitive people who have hit stimulus overload). She also discusses something that I'd previously not thought about, namely how the pressure towards extroversion leads people to act extroverted even when naturally introverted, and how it's therefore very difficult to tell from behavior (and sometimes even to tell internally!) what one's natural interaction style is.

But mostly I recommend this book if you're an introvert, if the TED talk linked above speaks to you. Even if we can't convince the world to respect introversion more, or at least stop treating it as abnormal, it's a lovely feeling to read a book from someone who gets it. Who understands. Who fills a book with great stories about introverts and how they construct their worlds and create quiet space in which to be themselves.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-06-25

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