Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


The differences between extroverts and introverts are well known.  One is caricatured as a sort of human golden retriever, eager for constant companionship, miserable when alone, perpetually cheerful, obnoxiously loud, and easily distracted.  The other is portrayed as vaguely misanthropic, shy to the point of social anxiety, dull as toast, bland as beige, and possibly maladjusted.  Cain, like many authors before her, has undertaken to dispel these generalizations and present the true essence of introversion--its weaknesses, yes, but more importantly its strengths.  The degree to which other authors may or may not have accomplished this goal, I don't claim to know, as I have by no means read all such books.  However, in Cain's case, I can safely say the result is a resounding success.

First off, the organization of this book is exemplary--Cain's ideas are presented in a clear and logical order, but the organization is fluid and subtle.  She doesn't draw the reader's attention to the structure itself.  (She does occasionally raise an issue and then assure the reader that it will be addressed in a future chapter, but this is not done so frequently as to be distracting, and is limited to those issues that really are likely to cross a reader's mind at a given point, but which do not belong in the current section.  So, for example, in discussing the scientific evidence that introversion presents in the very young, she assures parents that tips on parenting introverts (which do not belong in a chapter on the biology of introversion) will be addressed later.)

Cain starts off by essentially convincing the reader of the need for this book--that is, that we in America treat extroversion as the ideal, that this has not always been the case, and that perhaps in our charisma-driven, extroverted, groupthinking society we are denying the value of introversion and missing out on the contributions introverts can make to our businesses, families, and social circles.  This groundwork is well laid.  Cain, an admitted introvert, explains and establishes the extroverted ideal and highlights its shortcomings without seeming defensive.  She does not appear to view introversion as superior, but merely encourages her readers to consider the value of both personality types.  This rational, objective tone (which I imagine served her quite well in her bygone days as a negotiator) lends credibility to her presentation of the merits of introversion.

After establishing that America skews extroverted, she proceeds to lay out the scientific evidence for introversion as a biological predisposition.  Cain has clearly done her homework here, and her research has been both broad and thorough.  While these chapters focus more on the scientific studies tracing introversion back as far as the four-month mark, other chapters rely on anecdotal evidence and Cain's various visits to and interviews with experts and noted laymen alike (so, for example, her research included attending a Tony Robbins seminar, visiting Saddleback Church and the Harvard Business School, spending a weekend at an introvert 'retreat', and interviewing various professors and researchers).

Cain's explanation of the relevant research is fascinating.  She handles the scientific details with skill and subtlety, and never gets bogged down in unnecessary minutiae.  I cannot speak to the accuracy of her descriptions (that is, whether the various studies actually show what she says they show), as I have no firsthand knowledge of the underlying research, but the nearly fifty pages of bibliography at the close of the book (and Cain's own empirical-yet-relaxed, reasonable-yet-persuasive tone) make me inclined to believe her characterization of the research.  She also weaves in the tales of various individuals she believes demonstrate the strengths of introversion (for example, several brokers who successfully weathered the recent bursting of the housing market bubble, and a record-breaking--and introverted--salesman)--often in conjunction with an extroverted ally (FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

The uniquely American fixation on extroversion is addressed in a chapter focusing largely on Asian Americans and their difficulty adjusting to what Cain calls the 'hail-fellow-well-met' business culture of the United States.

The final chapters provide a series of suggestions for the introvert seeking to make the most of his or her career or relationships, including an entire chapter filled with advice for parents of introverted children--whether the parents themselves are likewise introverted or extroverted instead--and several pages addressing the challenges in communicating with the opposite type.

Cain persuasively explains the merits of being able to act against type for a while, but cautions against overextending oneself and risking exhaustion.  Her recommendations are extremely practical, and, I suspect, quite valuable.  Introverted workers are encouraged to find niches of solitude or quiet in their busy lives, and to counterbalance more extroverted tasks with periods of introversion where possible.  Employers are reminded that a significant portion of the workforce is introverted, and making slight accommodations for these employees (even some as simple as letting them sit on the edges of the meeting space, rather than in the middle) can result in significant benefits to the employer. The forced collaboration that characterizes so many workplaces (open office space, group brainstorming, etc.) can actually work to the employer's detriment if it encourages groupthink or stifles the problem-solving abilities of the introverted worker.

I was particularly impressed that Cain did not seem to be advocating for a world that caters to introverts.  She readily admits that on many occasions, introverts need to suck it up and make the best of things.  But she counterbalances this realism with practical ideas--yes, you may need to attend networking events in order to advance your career, but you can give yourself permission to attend, say, only one a week or one every couple of weeks, or you can allow yourself to leave early, or allow yourself the rest of that day or evening time to read and re-charge.  You can take on the challenging, extroverted task in such a way that it becomes manageable for you as an introvert. 

Somehow, in the midst of all this, Cain is able to avoid many of the common pitfalls in books on introversion.  As I mentioned, she doesn't give introverts a free pass.  Even though she establishes early on that some part of introversion seems to be biologically based, she does not argue that introverts are therefore entitled to do only what comes easily for them.  And she is quick to acknowledge the benefits of extroversion as well--no extrovert bashing here.  On an even more basic level, Cain handles the very definition of introversion with great skill.  After all, it is far from a clear cut category, and no generalization ever encompasses all introverts.  Cain is somehow able to address the intersection of introversion with sensitivity, reactivity, approach/avoidance, and risk aversion without claiming that introversion is necessarily any of these things.  As a result, I found myself untroubled when she would identify a common characteristic of introverts that I, in my introversion, do not share (such as, for example, being slow to speak).  In other contexts, I have found such generalizations irksome, and would immediately start thinking of louder, chattier introverts or quieter extroverts.  Because Cain is so clear and gentle in her portrayal of the constellation of qualities that, to varying degrees, make up introversion, I never felt excluded and was much less likely to spend time engaged in an imaginary argument with her about definitions.

This stands in marked contrast to a similar book I read on the topic:  Introverts in the Church, by Adam S. McHugh (who apparently met with Cain to discuss their shared interest in the topic).  Where McHugh's book felt like a defensive diatribe on behalf of his own variety of introversion, Cain was calm, confident, and curious.  Although McHugh makes some passing reference to the biology of introversion (in a section about 4 pages long), he lacks the convincing authority with which Cain handles the scientific research; and indeed, it appears that McHugh's conclusions seem based more on anecdotal evidence and personal experience than actual research (whether scientific or otherwise).  Granted, Cain does not address the unique challenges of introverted Christians seeking to live out the gospel in increasingly extroverted churches; but then, I didn't think McHugh did much in that regard either, whatever his intentions may have been.  At least Cain never claimed to answer that question.  I think you'd be better off giving McHugh a pass and just reading this (and your bible) instead.

Bottom line:  This was an incredibly well-researched, well-written, interesting, and insightful book.  If the subject matter interests you at all, you should absolutely give it a read.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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