- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
At least one third of the people in the highly extroverted United States are introverts, and Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (Crown Publishers, 352 pages, notes, index, $26.00) says we should value their contributions — not try to make extroverts out of them.
Introverts are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; people who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society — from van Gogh’s sunflowers to Apple’s Steve Wozniak’s contributions to the invention of the personal computer. The high-tech world is replete with the contributions of introverts like Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Written by a woman who herself is an introvert, “Quiet” shows how we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. She explores the psychological aspects of introversion and extroversion from development by Carl G. Jung to the present day and takes the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School — where extroverts rule — from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch in Orange County, California, Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects.
She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.
Cain introduces us to successful introverts, from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions, to a drummer and music journalist who saw himself on the screen when the movie “The Revenge of the Nerds” played in his hometown of Detroit. She describes her transformation to a fully functioning introvert as at Wall Street law firm and she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child to when it makes sense to be a “pretend extrovert.”
Cain is married to an extrovert and shows how this combination can work, using the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an extrovert, like most presidents (think Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) and his powerful in her own way introvert wife Eleanor.
And if you wonder if you’re an introvert or a “pretend extrovert”, Cain can help you determine your status. As Jung himself pointed out, no one is a pure introvert or extrovert.
If you’re a parent of an elementary, middle school or high school introvert child, pay special attention to Chapter 11: On Cobblers and Generals: How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can’t Hear Them, beginning on page 240. Cain provides case histories of introvert children and how they function in schools that are designed for extroverts. She writes that “…introverts react not only to new people, but also to new places and events. So don’t mistake your child’s caution in new situations for an inability to relate to others. He’s recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not from human contact.”
She writes that “many schools are designed for extroverts. Introverts need different kinds of instruction from extroverts, write College of Education William and Mary education scholars Jill Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig.”
Cain says there’s nothing “sacrosanct about learning in large group classrooms, and that we organize students this way not because it’s the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient…”
Here’s an excerpt from “Quiet”:
Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts—in other words, one out of every two or three people you know. (Given that the United States is among the most extroverted of nations, the number must be at least as high in other parts of the world.) If you’re not an introvert yourself, you are surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one.
If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America. Some fool even themselves, until some life event—a layoff, an empty nest, an inheritance that frees them to spend time as they like— jolts them into taking stock of their true natures. You have only to raise the subject of this book with your friends and acquaintances to find that the most unlikely people consider themselves introverts.
It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk- taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual—the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.
Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second- class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
The Extrovert Ideal has been documented in many studies, though this research has never been grouped under a single name. Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better- looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas. Even the word introvert is stigmatized—one informal study, by psychologist Laurie Helgoe, found that introverts described their own physical appearance in vivid language ( “green- blue eyes,” “exotic,” “high cheekbones”), but when asked to describe generic introverts they drew a bland and distasteful picture (“ungainly,” “neutral colors,” “skin problems”).
But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly. Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer— came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.
About the Author
SUSAN CAIN’s writing on introversion and shyness has appeared in the New York Times; the Dallas Morning News; The Atlantic; O, The Oprah Magazine; Time.com; and PsychologyToday.com. Cain has also spoken at Microsoft, Google, the U.S. Treasury, and at TED 2012. Since her TED talk was posted online, it has been viewed more than one million times. She has appeared on national broadcast television and radio including CBS This Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, and her work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, in Wired, Fast Company, Real Simple,Fortune, Forbes, USA Today, the Washington Post, CNN, Slate.com, and many other publications. She is an honors graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School. She lives in the Hudson River Valley with her husband and two sons.