Monday, December 10, 2012

Quiet by Susan Cain

I am an introvert.  So is Susan Cain, author of Quiet.  I imagine so are many of the other readers of this book on introversion and its strengths as they look to understand themselves and live more comfortably in a world the favors the outgoing.

Cain divides her book into four parts corresponding to four questions about introversion.  What are the roots of the preference for extroversion in the West, especially in America?  Is introversion real, a quality inherent to our nature?  Are there cultures where introversion is preferred?  Finally, how to introvert live in an extroverted culture?

What Cain calls the “Extrovert Ideal” arose with a cultural shift to a focus on personality.  This isn’t personality as a trait as she uses in the rest of the book, but personality as personal forcefulness, persuasion and salesmanship.  This seems to have arisen naturally over time with the rise of industry and our move to cities.  We were less producers and more sellers, and the main thing we had to sell was ourselves.  Cain uses as an example, though the trend started earlier, Dale Carnegie (a Missourian like me).  Carnegie propelled himself from shy farm boy to dynamic people person by mastering public speaking and he built and business that still exists today on teaching people to be more outgoing.

The distinction between introversion and extroversion is more that cultural, though.  There is evidence that inborn physiological difference play a role in these personalities.  Cain discusses research on the subject that  suggest there is a biological basis that at  least partly explains introversion, though life experience likely still plays some role.  There is not a 100 percent correlation between being a “highly reactive” or “highly sensitive” person and being an introvert, but many introverts reading this book will probably recognize themselves in these categories.

Though the Extrovert Ideal prevails in the West, introversion seems to be preferred in the East.  We see this in the quiet studiousness that has become the reputation of Asian-Americans.  Many Asian cultures prefer quiet, reserve, deference, reflectiveness and other traits associated with introversion.  They are seen as wisdom, politeness and respect.

Though extroverts draw most of the attention, and that will likely continue, introverts have strengths that can be useful in organization and society (introverts aren’t antisocial, they just deal with stimulus differently than extroverts).  Introverts are more likely to pay attention to warning signs.  For instance, Warren Buffet predicted the collapse of the internet bubble.  He wasn’t being a bearish pessimist; he was just paying attention to signs that reward-hungry extroverts were ignoring.  Cain found her questioning mind and quiet demeanor made her an excellent negotiator because she could question assertions without seeming overly aggressive.  I’ve often found myself in the role of mediator and negotiator for the same reason; I could listen, sort out what people really wanted, and offer a compromise.

Not only that, Cain offers a path for happy introversion.  We can be true to ourselves and be as extroverted as we need to be to accomplish those things that are truly important to us.  Extroverts can be as quiet as they need to be, too.

Reading Quiet prompted me to think a lot about my introversion.  With a few exceptions (I was never especially afraid of public speaking—it got me out of the crowd of pressing bodies in the audience), I’m a typical introvert.  I may write about it sometime.  I suspect many introverts who read it will find much to reflect on, especially since such reflection will come naturally.  It is a worthy book for extroverts, too, for insight into the many obvious and hidden introverts in their lives, probably a few very close to them.

Cain, Susan.  Quiet: The Power if Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop TalkingNew York: Crown, 2012.