Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain
Susan Cain was educated at Harvard Law School before working as a corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant for a number of major businesses. Given her career history, it may seem strange that she should write a book on the value of being quiet. But Susan Cain is a self-confessed introvert who, like many others, has repeatedly felt pressured to push her true nature aside in order to attempt to live up to, what she terms, the Extrovert Ideal. Her book, Quiet, argues for the gentle power of introverts to be recognised and valued, in a world that is increasingly designed around extroverted and outgoing personalities.
In the opening chapter, Cain explores what’s actually meant by the terms extrovert and introvert. Rather than being a clear-cut dichotomy, she recognises it’s a spectrum and that exact definitions aren’t agreed upon on by modern researchers. Human nature is far more complicated than that. However, it’s established that the terms generally refer to how much stimulation an individual needs in order to function best. Introverts prefer less stimulating environments in order to focus on the internal mind, where as extroverts thrive amongst high levels of activity and external stimulation. It’s a common misconception that introverts are antisocial, Cain argues, when actually they just have a different social style to extroverts as well as requiring more time alone to recharge.
Cain explores how over the last century Western society has accepted the charismatic and confident extrovert as the ideal self that everyone should aspire to, a belief particularly held in corporate America. She recognises that, ‘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.’ Workplaces and schools are designed around group work and socialising, with those thoughtful and sensitive individuals who seek solitude often viewed negatively. Cain argues for the untapped power of such overlooked personality types and calls for change. She looks at the importance of solitude to creativity and innovation, citing a number of introverted yet well-known artists, writers, inventors, musicians and scientists to convince readers throughout.
The book progresses the debate into a nature vs. nurture argument, questioning how much of our personality, and tendency for introversion/extroversion, is determined by our biology. Cain does not attempt to reach all-encompassing conclusions, however, but presents well examined and thoughtful points, taking care to consider all sides of the argument.
The chapter on the financial crisis makes for interesting reading. It examines how excessive risk-taking is associated with extrovert personalities whilst introverts tend to exercise more caution and doubt when making decisions. The significance of these different approaches, and their role in the Wall Street crash, adds weight to Cain’s argument that introverts have strengths that shouldn’t be ignored.
One chapter of the book looks at how Eastern traditions place more importance on quiet individuals, seeing them as contemplative and even wise. It offers some interesting perspectives, for cultural comparisons, even if it is somewhat knowingly generalised. The last part of the book lapses into more of a self-help style, offering advice for introverts and extroverts in relationships with their opposite type, as well as some guidance for parents with an introverted child.
Quiet is a very engaging and enjoyable read that’s convincingly argued and well presented. The discussions of psychology and science are perfectly accessible, and show that the book has been extensively researched. Writing in the first person and using examples from her own life, Susan Cain is clearly very personally invested in the topic of the book. However, without declaring one personality type is better than the other, she justly argues that more balance is needed in recognising the relative strengths and weaknesses of each trait. An insightful look at personality psychology, Quiet is a particularly engrossing read if you consider yourself amongst the soft-spoken, thoughtful individuals the book stands up for.