Book Review -- Quiet: The Power of Introverts

Book Review -- Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain Quiet

It's a long-standing joke in my family that when I was little, I never stopped talking. I talked to the mailman (even inviting him into our house), the neighbor, the check-out clerk, kids in my ballet class, etc. There are home videos wherein my mom keeps asking my little sister questions, and I respond rapidly. For her. In fact, my parents were a little worried for a while because said little sister didn't talk very much--that is, until the doctor met me, chuckled, and pretty much said that it was because I already did all the talking for the both of us.

I was also a dreamer and a reader and a writer as a child, passions that have stuck with me over the years and sometimes cause me to seem much more "quiet" than I actually am. In college, I worked three part-time jobs and was the president of my sorority, but at the same time, absolutely loved staying home on a Friday night, by myself, in my room. I discovered a love for communications work, particularly the behind-the-scenes stuff--the writing, the editing, the designing--though I never minded presentations or speaking in front of colleagues. I adored the pace and energy of big cities, but simultaneously appreciated the calm peace of smaller towns. And even now, I love meeting new people and trying new things, but I also am a homebody who likes quiet routine and structure.

So when I picked up Quiet, I was intrigued by Susan Cain's arguments supporting introversion as a powerful tool in today's society. She claims that most people are a mix of introverted and extroverted qualities, not simply one or the other (which seems sort of obvious to me, because people in general don't fall in black and white categories like that...but ok, carry on). She basically says that introverts get the shaft much of the time in terms of preferred personalities. That in today's society, to be successful, one often has to self-promote with loudness and confidence at all times, maintaining all sorts of relationships, etc. Cain thinks that in all sorts of personal and professional situations, outgoing translates to positive characteristics (she's fun, he's friendly, she's successful, he's powerful) while being more quiet or introverted is linked with negative characteristics (she's shy, he's stuck up, she's indifferent, he's hesitant). Cain doesn't think that is fair, and spends much of Quiet explicating why introversion can be a great, powerful tool in one's arsenal.

Cain shines the most when describing what specifically makes someone act in an introverted way. For example, she writes, "Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions." (11)

Now, you could read that paragraph and have a few different reactions: 1) Sure, I know someone like that, 2) I feel that way once in a while! or 3) OMG she is describing ME. And I think that's what Cain is going for most of the time. She shares all sorts of personal anecdotes about the ways in which she overcame her own shyness and quietness to succeed in work or relationships or life, and I think for many readers, her words will prove inspiring. Really, anyone who has ever felt like they were weird or not good enough or lacking confidence due to having any mix of introversion as part of their personality will probably enjoy reading what Cain has to say. Quiet is a self-help tome in that it encourages people to look beyond personality labels, acknowledge their strengths and address their weaknesses in order to live a fulfilling, successful life.

For example, if you've commonly associated shyness with introversion, Cain breaks it down differently: "Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating." (11)

If you've associated good leadership with extroverted folks only, Cain disagrees: "We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run. . . . Extroverted leaders might enhance group performance when employees are passive, but introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. . . Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions." (55-57)

If you consider yourself more of an introvert, and feel pressured to act otherwise, Cain says: "Stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don't force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way." (173)

And so on.

I did like Quiet, and Cain makes observations that ring true to the introverted side of me. I love to be social and connected, but I can physically tell when I've maxed out in terms of social presence or interaction and need time to regroup, often alone. I've learned to prepare for an "out"--for example, I tend to avoid going to major social events with other people, because then I can leave as soon as I reach my "max-out" level, instead of feeling zapped and frustrated while waiting for my ride to finish their conversations. That's not an introvert being rude; that's simply knowing your social limits.

In addition, my parents have taught me how to prep for the constant stream of small talk required by, well, regular life. Both of them are social in their own ways. My mother's default mode is talking and she adores being around people, particularly those she loves; she thrives on interaction and connection. My father, conversely, is more quiet-natured, yet  25+ years of police and detective work have honed his conversation skills. My dad is the guy that everybody knows, and everybody wants to chat with for a few minutes. This combination means that I literally can't go to the grocery store with my parents without stopping to speak with at least five different people. When I was younger, I often felt like I was about to scream; it felt like these conversations took forever. Now that I'm older (and more mature), I recognize that this feeling of stress is my introverted side getting exhausted--I'm happy to say hi to someone I know when I run into them, but I usually don't have the emotional capacity to do that five times in a row when I'm trying to run an errand. I realize how rude that can come across, however, and of course I enjoy seeing people I know. So now, I take a moment to prep myself when I'm heading out the door to a place where I will likely have several run-ins of the small talk variety.

Quiet also encourages readers to ask themselves questions like, "How am I introverted, and how I am not? When do I fall back on my introverted tendencies, and when do I push through? Do I make assumptions about others based on how introverted or extraverted they seem?" These questions are worth considering, and Cain does an excellent job of sharing her personal journey and sets of facts regarding, as she puts it, the power of introverts.