When Introverts Speak

Book Review:  ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain

A few years ago I was in a bookshop and stumbled upon this book as I was browsing.  I picked it up and was hooked immediately.  I think I read the first chapter before paying for it.  What follows is my review that I’ve recently rediscovered, and I offer it here.

The sub-title of the book reads: ‘The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’.  And although this book is secular, the author not only accesses her biblically Jewish roots, but what she says is as relevant to Christian ministry as it is to industry chiefs and educators.  

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Cain refers to the introvert/extrovert divide as the most “fundamental dimension of personality”, arguing further that in a world of extroverted pomp, introverts make up over a third of the human race!  It is not the pomp of extrovertedness that she critiques per se, but rather the inevitable downside view that the sensitive and serious are seen as undesirable, in both the popular mind of culture and business.

Quiet is divided into four parts.  Part one, ‘The Extrovert Ideal’ is traced through various publications that gave rise to the drive behind the American Dream, or rather, Ideal.  Cain highlights how those who were quiet in school were seen as having something wrong, a problem or dysfunction that ‘needed healing.’  The quiet ones had to ‘get with the program’ and it was this ‘program that permeated the education system, business and government.’  The values of extrovertedness were promoted, leading to the inevitable ‘Culture of Personality’ that gave rise to the ‘myth of charismatic leadership’. 

 

The dangerous implication is clear:  Extroverts are more intelligent, get more done and are more liked.  Within this complex cultural matrix, Cain explains how then, the rise of the ‘New Groupthink’ trumped quiet and prolonged thought.  Her fiercest critique here is brilliant and she shows how this ‘one-size-fits-all’ model is the default in most schools, with circular tables and chairs, everyone facing each other, all sharing and talking aloud, an introverts nightmare (modern open plan offices are the adult-world alternative).  Cain argues persuasively, taking example from Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), that like him, most inventors are “shy and think in their heads” and are more akin to artists than salesmen p.72-73.  

 

 Part two explores the biological, scientific and ontological aspects of human nature.  Citing Kagan’s high and low reactive child experiments, Cain shows how introvertedness is a natural part of many lives p.98, before showing how a shy person can actually learn what appear to be extroverted behaviours, such as public speaking.  This may indicate why many Christian ministers are introverts, yet appear extroverts when preaching.  Thus introverts appear extrovert when doing something they are passionate about.  This has been said of me, but I have learned to ‘come out’ of my introvertedness to do a ‘job/function’ that I’m passionate about.  Cain refers here to the work of Professor Brian Little and his Free Trait Theory (p.209).  Yet rather than ‘acting out of character’, (to thine own self be true), it is to be in character true-to-self for introverts “living under the Extrovert Ideal”.  Cain’s uses Moses’ stutter and fear of speaking to show how “even the bible” reveals such things, and how God provided him with the extrovert Aaron to help him.  I liked the way she tells this story unapologetically for a non-theological book.

 

 Part three is a very insightful cultural qwerk in the American Ideal of extrovertism, as Cain looks at what she coins “Soft Power”, that is, how does all this play out with Asian-Americans, i.e. Americans imbibed within a shame and honour (or hot climate culture) value system p.181-5.  With anecdotal accounts, she pulls it together through the lens of Gandhi (“In a gentle way you can change the world”) by highlighting the tensions that arise when ‘hot’ meets ‘cold’, or extrovert society meets introvert culture in one person (this is not to say Gandhi was American but that Asian-Americans function within the rubric of his Asian worldview.)  Soft Power then refers to the kind of “passive resistance” (satyagraha) by which Gandhi set in motion the end of British colonial rule in India.  The inner strength shown here demonstrates that to be tough you don’t have to be loud.  To embrace the “soft-power of quiet” is to have a strength the extroverted world doesn’t understand.  

 

Part four, sets up practical ways to relate well, with opposites and children and self.  No-one is always and only introvert.  “A man has many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whom he cares” p.205 (This wisdom is highlighted by Paul’s varied speeches in Acts – my point not Cains).   Thus our social selves are not deception, but a mature response to various social scenes, in wise moderation p.215.  Furthermore, Cain stresses the need for one to understand the other, one’s need for social interaction, the other’s need for quiet alone time p.228.  If anything, the book is a study of words, meanings, definitions and culture.  This is not just East v West or men v women, but everyone v everywhere.  Some of Cain’s work in this regard would be particularly valuable to missiology and others in cross-cultural ministry.  The unpicking of our own cultural assumptions and personality traits can help avoid unnecessary conflict and many a cultural faux pas.  Among many other things, this means a forward thinking strategy that allows people, especially children, to be who they are.  No more forcing classroom collaboration, no more unthinking open-plan offices, no more shout-it-loud brain storming.  Respect the quiet and thoughtful too.  Without introverts, as Cain brilliantly shows, the world would not have had “the theory of gravity/relativity; Chopin’s nocturnes; Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; Peter Pan; Google and Harry Potter.

 

 Quoting science journalist Winifred Gallagher, Cain writes, “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement.  Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal” p.5-6.

 

This book is thorough, engaging, intelligent and essential for anyone interested in anthropology.    Cain’s scientific research was breathtakingly thorough, and as a non-scientist, this was the most difficult part of the book.  But with the equally prolific anecdotes, Cain has provided a master-class in something that affects every single person.  The platonic aphorism ‘Know thyself’ is the only likely outcome after reading such a book.  Highly recommended.

Here is Susan Cain’s immensely popular TED talk on the same subject (but read the book too):

 

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