A Call-to Arms for Introverts: review of Susan Cain's "Quiet"

As someone who

  • listens well, and does not talk over other people in conversation
  • prefers not to engage in “small talk” until after important issues are discussed
  • enjoys his solitude
  • in general, prefers one-on-one conversations to group activities
  • is described as “laid back” and “mellow”
  • tends to think before he speaks
  • is happy to eat his meals, watch his movies, or sit alone with his thoughts, in public spaces
  • is not tweeting and blogging all the time (obviously), happy instead to keep his thoughts to limited, real-time circles of physically proximate human beings,
Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking (2012) comes as sweet vindication and clear explanation of one side of my oddness, my introversion. Cain’s book claims that introverts like me are born this way (our  temperament is congenital), and we are not alone (although we may prefer it so). Cain’s book is a call-to-arms for this significant, if overlooked constituency in the body politic (about a third of the US population). We should rise up, in an introverted way, and represent!

According to Cain’s research,
the US might be the most extroverted place on earth in 2014. The Harvard MBA program and its ilk produce yearly crops of uber-extroverts, master talkers and socializers, who go on to lead our public and private enterprises. Most American leaders are extroverts, and we celebrate great communicators in industry and in the media. However, Cain suggests that if the introverts were in charge, our country might be more functional. (Yes, this is ironic, since, introverts experience being in charge as unpleasantly high in stimuli, and so relatively few will seek positions of leadership.) It is the introverts, Cain claims, who“are uniquely good at leading initiative-takers,” and “more likely to hear and implement suggestions” than the typical American CEO. Extroverts have had their chance, she suggests–it’s time for some more balance in our national leadership equation.

As an introvert, I and perhaps most of my fellows are naturally attracted to our opposite: the extrovert who displays his//her communicative gifts in all their rhetorical magnificence. Needless to say, this predilection has has political consequences in modern society. Hitler’s oratory is what drew him followers, and Barack Obama’s skills in 2004-08 are what drew me and millions of others to his support. In Tea Party circles, Ron or Rand Paul’s communication marshals them armies of extroverts, introverts and ambiverts for whom the Pauls speak. Most humans are subject, on some level, to effective communicators. Cain’s book comes as a welcome corrective to my natural inclinations, and reminds me to keep my critical stance. “There’s zero correlation,” she reminds me, “between being the best talker in the room and having the best ideas.”

Cain recounts how it was only relatively recently, at the beginning of the 20th century, that the USA began turning away from contemplative leaders such as founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, or perhaps their greatest successor, Lincoln. With the hucksterism that rose with American Empire at the close of the 19th century, arose the cult of personality brought in by Dale Carnegie, writes Cain. In hearkening to the salesman of salesmen, “America… shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called ‘a Culture of Character’ to a ‘Culture of Personality.’”

Extroverts can lead, obviously. Bill Clinton, Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Steve Jobs are famous examples of successful leaders, but Quiet reminds the reader that those who lead from behind communicate support for their followers, which in turn inspires their very best work. In world history, Moses, Jesus, Abe Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt all exemplify the lasting, motivating influence of introvert leaders on groups. And countervailing the Harvard Business School model, Cain claims that “the most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts, studies show… [as well as in] leadership structures [or teams].”

Perhaps most controversial about her book is her claim of real bias against introverts in US society. She writes:

“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. 

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 in 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…. If you’re an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologize for your shyness. Or at school you might have been prodded to come “out of your shell” -that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and some humans are just the same.” [emphases added]

I must reflect sometime (difficult to do in the midst of a career) on the extent to which my introversion–my failure to live up the the Extrovert Ideal– has unfairly stood between me and greater success (materially measured) in society. But in the meantime, I’ll grow wise pondering Cain’s distinction between shyness (the “inherently painful… fear of social disapproval or humiliation”) and introversion (the natural, and hence painless “preference for environments that are not overstimulating”). 

Check out
Susan Cain’s TED talk if you’d like to find out more about her work. In it, she calls for an end to the madness of constant groupwork and open-plan offices, which reduce productivity and impair memory. Open-plan layouts are also “associated with high staff turnover… [and]  make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure,” so they’re bad for business, too. In schools, she encourages us to teach kids to work alone, as well as collaboratively, since alone is where original thought comes from.

So for her reporting and her advocacy, one introvert to another, I feel sincere gratitude to Cain. Thanks, Susan, for speaking up for the by-nature silent:  the introvert.

ps. My thanks to a wonderful, introverted student, R.M., for loaning me her copy of this book!

all images responsibly sourced using Google advanced image search free to use and share setting

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