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Susan Cain: Quiet

Susan Cain quietly explains why we should listen to introverts

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Photo: , License: N/A

Susan Cain


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Susan Cain

Crown, hardcover

To be an introvert is to forever be at war with a larger, louder world. Battle fronts are legion: bus shelters, restaurants, grocery stores, board rooms, bathrooms, the living rooms of strangers, even libraries. The armor introversion demands—headphones, paperbacks, concentration, sunken, nearly uterine postures—often isn’t enough to keep the joviality, backslapping, and small talk of full-bore extroverts at bay. And a shy, retiring, or subdued persona is kryptonite in any milieu where success or status means possessing an engaging or outgoing personality. Conventional wisdom doesn’t help matters. Concerned, well-meaning co-workers will ask why you sit alone in the lunchroom or skip team happy hours and holiday parties. Why are you always lost in a book? Why don’t you talk about your day? Why don’t you even aspire to be the life of the party? It’s a condition author Susan Cain, an avowed introvert, describes thus: “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, mirrors its theme in tone, taking a measured, analytical approach to clarifying introversion socially, culturally, and scientifically.

When Cain wanders willingly into the mouth of extroversion’s madness, its incubators and echo chambers, the scarlet-letter nature of introversion leaps into focus. A Tony Robbins seminar in Atlanta—titled “Unleash the Power Within”—is a hyper-enthusiastic, high-decibel nightmare of manic high-fiving and preening would-be overachievers dancing on tables to blues singles. Self-help guru-to-the-stars Robbins, Cain writes, “wants us not only to feel great but to radiate waves of energy, not just to be liked, but to be well liked; he wants us to know how to sell ourselves.” A sojourn at Harvard Business School, a place where students and professors alike “stride, full of forward momentum” and the breeding ground that spawned political and business leaders such as George W. Bush and Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling, is no less sociopathic. The author finds herself in surroundings that are Brave New World disconcerting: Groupthink is demanded, off-campus socializing de riguer, and “no-one is more than five pounds overweight, or has bad skin or wears odd accessories.” Introversion and individualism aren’t just frowned upon here; they’re practically illegal. And the danger of this philosophy, as an HBS professor explains to Cain, is significant: “It tends to be the assertive people who carry the day in these kinds of things. The risk with our students is that they’re very good at getting their way. But that doesn’t mean they’re going the right way.”

Quiet is ultimately a work of rumination and research, of slowly and deliberately inching closer to the answer to a big question. Cain traces Western civilization’s embrace of extroversion to the dawn of the industrial revolution and the growth of urban centers, the point when the so-called Cult of Character gave way to a Cult of Personality. Hectoring, status-baiting adverts, beauty guides, and etiquette handbooks like How to Win Friends and Influence People—Dale Carnegie was the Tony Robbins of his day—proliferated, snapped up by a public desperate to put the best possible self forward.

The “inferiority complex” was born, and child-guidance experts warned parents that “shyness could lead to dire outcomes from alcoholism to suicide, while an outgoing personality would bring social and financial success.” Cain discovers that social fear—a key component of introversion—is linked to “heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with upsetting emotions such as the fear of rejection.” And a never-ending flow of examples attest to the truth at the heart of Quiet’s subtitle: Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to surrender her bus seat triggering a civil rights tidal wave (“It was Parks’ quiet strength that made her unassailable”); Steve Wozniak’s childhood insularity manifesting itself in the evolution of personal computing; Al Gore’s Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist crusade; Craigslist, founded by Craig Newmark; Charles Schulz’s immortal Peanuts. And yet the most inspiring stories are of introverts whose triumphs don’t return headlines: under-the-radar business titans like the ironically named Darwin Smith, a mild-mannered CEO who “wore J.C. Penney suits and nerdy black-rimmed glasses” and took the Kimberly-Clark paper company over the top; Elaine Aron, a research psychologist who stages low-impact weekend gatherings for introverts, what might be called “anti-conferences”; and evangelical pastor Adam McHugh, whose worries that he wasn’t quite fervent enough in his faith inspired him to write a book called Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, where he argues that “evangelism means listening as well as talking.”

Taken cumulatively, Quiet is like the introvert’s equivalent of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign, a project aimed at LGBT youth. And if learning that roughly 33 percent of the human race prefers silence and seclusion has the effect of boosting an introvert’s self-confidence, knowing that societal game-changers such as Moses, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dr. Seuss numbered among the introverted could send it hurtling into the stratosphere.

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