Book review: ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’

I’ve spent this last weekend gripped reading Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.

The author, Susan Cain, is a self-confessed introvert and ex-corporate lawyer. Her premise is that our lives – friendships, work, lovers, leisure – are driven by whether our personality is introvert or extrovert.

At least a third of people are on the introverted side of the introvert/extrovert divide yet much of western society is entirely geared to the “extrovert ideal.” School, further education, leadership, work environments, career progression, politics, entertainment – all geared towards extroverts’ natural behaviour and characteristics.

Cain examines this extrovert ideal in the first part of her book. She looks at a shift in the early twentieth century (in America) from a “Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.”

“In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.”

The Culture of Personality emphasises the quality of how you communicate; not the quality of what you communicate.

A culture that values confident presentation over measured evaluation can have dangerous results – results that may be the opposite of what we want:

  • Groupthink – the desire for harmony and consensus in decision-making overriding critical evaluation of alternative ideas or points of view.
  • Charismatic leadership, evangelical passion and total self-belief – I’m thinking of financial institutions heading off the cliff with the non-questioning followers ignoring the danger ahead.
  • Collaborative working – brainstorming, office environments, meetings or project groups that harm creativity rather than foster it.

In part two, Cain looks at the nature versus nurture debate, exploring research on the extent to which introvert/extrovert traits are with us from birth or develop later in childhood, for example.

Cain explores a longitudinal study over 20 years by Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman (discussed at length in The Long Shadow of Temperament, 2004). There’s some good stuff on “low reactive” and “high reactive” behaviour in four-month old babies when exposed to stimuli such as tape-recorded voices, balloons popping, colourful mobiles and new smells. Some babies reacted strongly with limbs pumping, visibly uncomfortable (the high reactives). Others, the low reactives, stayed calm and quiet.

“Many of the children turned out exactly as Kagan had expected. The high-reactive infants, the 20 per cent who’d hollered at the mobiles bobbling above their heads, were more likely to have developed serious, careful personalities. The low-reactive infants—the quiet ones—were more likely to have become relaxed and confident types. High and low reactivity tended to correspond, in other words, to introversion and extroversion.”

This made things clearer to me. I thought it was a good illustration to use when challenging a common perception of introverts as being misanthropic, brusque or socially inept, which isn’t necessarily true. It’s about the level of stimuli you are comfortable with. Some people are overwhelmed by too much stimuli, such as loud noise, movement or fast-paced discussion. Others need more stimuli to maintain interest or they might become bored.

It reassures me to know that, to a large degree, reaction to stimuli is down to the way my brain functions, and it’s been that way since I was born. That’s some pressure off my shoulders, right there!

Later in the book, Cain looks more at how extroverts and introverts think, how to talk to members of the opposite type (useful!), and when to act more extroverted than you really are (practicing pseudo-extrovert skills that, while unnatural, frankly you have to in order to ‘pass’ in an extrovert-geared world).

There’s also a section on a parenting quiet kids, which I skipped much of.

What I liked about this book, firstly, is that the introvert/extrovert personality divide isn’t presented as ‘us versus them.’ Cain presents an interesting mix of thoroughly researched examples, scientific detail and personal anecdotes that explains how our brains function, why we act and react the way we do.

There were so many instances reading the book where I found myself thinking “yes, that’s how I felt at the time” or a light bulb flicked on above my head, “blimey, that explains why that happened then!” Here are some examples…

In 1996, I started a degree in international management science (ha!) and discovered what being a fish out of water really means. Ok, the University of Hull business department I attended might not be as prestigious as Harvard Business School! – which in Cain’s book comes across as a horrifying place guaranteed to produce glossy, skilled vocal leaders hell bent on world domination regardless of ideas or who you need to step on – but the seminar and class setup described by Cain rang true for me. (After a year’s stint lugging amps in 1998 I switched to an English degree and was very happy.)

I’m not really one for doing ‘proud about work examples’ in public but will force myself here. One of my proudest projects in a work context was as the lead editor on New Masters of Photoshop: Volume 2, a lovely full colour book showcasing 15 digital artists and designers from across the world published in 2004. It was an epic project over nine months, and involved researching designers, contracting authors, text editing, testing Photoshop methods and ensuring the tutorials worked – leading the book all the way through to handing over to the production team for copy editing and layout.

With hindsight, and after reading Cain’s book, I can now see how I coped. All of the following factors suited my personality and preferred way of working, and came together in this one project:

  • Communication methods with authors and colleagues.
  • Office environment.
  • Top quality (for 2004) computers and software I was free to choose.
  • An inspiring idea core to the project that I really cared about – the cross over between visual creativity and technology.
  • Working with creative people brimming with ideas.

Another area is public speaking, networking or conferences. Never a natural, I’ve learnt some pseudo-extrovert traits to get through it. After reading Cain’s book, I now recognise the importance of restorative niches (downtime, reducing stimuli) before and after the busy times.

So, do I recommend this book? Yes, absolutely. If you’re interested in learning more about introvert/extrovert behaviour, how to communicate better to other types or just gain a better understanding of other types, then it’s worth reading this book.

The only things about the book I would criticise is that it is US-centric and many of the anecdotes involved highly successful people (corporate lawyers, directors of university departments, professors, doctors). When they discover their work or personal life doesn’t fit their personality types, and they decide to radically change their lives, I couldn’t help feeling that the wealth and status they had accumulated meant that they had more control, freedom and security to make such changes. I would have been interested to read stories from a wider range of society; more real people, if you like.

Lastly, my perspective on Cain’s book and the experiences in this post are surely biased by my own personal type (an ISFJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).

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