Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

Book Review
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking

"Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know." -- Lao Zi

A number of blurbs on Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” describe it as “exhaustively researched”, and they are correct. Cain, true to her introverted nature, digs deep and takes nothing at face value. Just when you think a question has been answered, she comes at it again from yet another angle, and another, gently but persistently coaxing every drop of knowledge she can from her impressive cache of resources. 

 “Quiet” covers an incredible breadth of territory, exploring in-depth the cultural, historical, and biochemical basis of introversion. But what I found most interesting about the book was its examination of how deeply ingrained the ideal of extroversion is in American society, and how our blindness to the gifts that introverts bring has enormous, if mostly unseen, costs. As an introvert who has often felt misunderstood and devalued in a culture where the loud and loquacious prevail, “Quiet” was very reassuring. Like most introverts, I have frequently been told to:

  • Learn to be outgoing
  • “Put myself out there” more
  • Come out of my shell
  • Stop thinking about things so much
  • Let my “real personality” come through

…and other helpful suggestions. Cain has a much different perspective on introversion, framing it as a strength rather than a pathology, and citing the hidden powers inherent in the trait. One of the most compelling parts of the book for me was the opening story, where Cain described an introverted attorney trying to broker a negotiation between two high-powered, dogged, and extroverted forces. At first, she struggles, but because she does not feel a need to shout and posture, she goes silent and deep, listening to carefully to both sides, taking the time to think, analyze, and ask meaningful questions. Eventually her quiet, listening-based approach yields a huge win-win for both parties, and a job offer from her company’s competitor. Such stories are peppered throughout the book, culminating in several chapters in which she provides excellent advice about the proper care of introverted children. (Hint—there is nothing “wrong” with your introverted child. Let them be themselves, and give them time and space to be alone and explore their interests. Left to be themselves, introverted children can eventually become strong and respected leaders among their peers.)

I also found the research in the first part of the book to be fascinating and eye-opening. Cain describes in detail numerous long-term studies showing that introversion is not a personality flaw, but an inherent, biochemically-based trait that cannot be changed. The neural pathways and chemical make-up of introverts is profoundly different from that of extroverts, making introverts much more sensitive to external stimuli. This trait is present at birth, and does not change. In one long-term study, babies were presented with array of loud, colorful, and frequently changing stimulus. Some of the babies cried, kicked, and became very agitated in the face of stimulus, while the other babies watched calmly and were “low-reactive”. The high-reactive babies became introverted children and introverted adults, and remained that way throughout their lives. The low-reactive babies became extroverted adults, and described themselves as needing a great deal of external stimulus to feel pleasure and excitement. (I won’t go into the details of the how’s and why’s of the brain-chemistry differences here, but you can find that information in the book or by looking up the studies.)

I immediately recognized introverted traits in myself—easily overstimulated and tired by too much novelty, needing long expanses of quiet and alone-time to recharge, and needing to keep my external environment serene and free of chaos in order to thrive. Although I understand intellectually that my introversion is not a disorder, but an inherent part of my make-up, it can be very hard not see it as a personality flaw in the face of constant pressure to be loud, outgoing, hyper-sociable, and gregarious. In American society, the garrulous are rewarded and complimented, while the quiet are often dismissed or overlooked. Reading about the unseen gifts of introversion (among them listening skills, deep powers of concentration and analysis, creativity, a keen sense of observation, and empathy), reminded me that I don’t have to change who I am in order to succeed, but that I can be successful in my high-visibility, people-intensive career because of—not in spite of—my introversion. In fact, Cain cites several samples of introverts who have thrived in unlikely professions like sales and public speaking.

However, Cain’s goal is not to knock extroverts or create a society of all-introverts. She is generous in giving credit where credit is due, even citing an all-introvert conference on high sensitivity she attended as part of her book research. She describes feeling that without the extroverts to “get things going” and facilitate socializing, the conference was almost too quiet; a little lackluster. Cain is only asking that we all occasionally quiet down a little, step out of the spotlight, and give the floor to that soft-spoken person in the back of the room who has been listening carefully, and has raised her hand because she something meaningful to say. 

--Kristen McHenry

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