Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain has been getting loads of press coverage. I heard about the book before the deluge of coverage and immediately reserved a copy at the public library. There were about 30 other people who beat me to it. Now my turn to read it finally came. I must say it was an exhilarating and creepy experience reading this book. Exhilarating because someone seemed to know me so well. Creepy because someone seemed to know me so well.
Introversion and extroversion have nothing to do with being shy and everything to do with how much external stimulation a person needs to function well. Extroverts need a lot of outside stimulation; they like to be in crowds, they like it loud, they like meeting new people, taking risks and racking up experiences. Introverts tend to prefer quiet, stay away from crowds, stink at small talk, prefer gatherings of one or two close friends, would rather spend their Friday nights reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle than going out on the town. Introverts listen more than they talk, think before they speak, tend to express themselves better in writing than in speech, and usually dislike conflict. When introverts have conversations they prefer them to be deep discussions. Unless it is with a close friend, then chit chat becomes very important, a means of checking in and taking the temperature of both the friend and the relationship. Extroverts tend to be assertive, think out loud and good at thinking on their feet. Introverts are the ones that think of the good comeback an hour later or, when giving a presentation and asked an unanticipated question have difficulty answering it even though they may be an expert on the topic.
No one is certain how many introverts there are. Estimates range widely from one-third to one-half of the population. What is certain is that, especially in the United States, the Extrovert Ideal is the rule of behavior. The US is the most extroverted nation in the world, no surprise to most people. All you introverts out there, and you know who you are, very likely feel obliged to try to be someone you are not, at least in public and at work. Some of us are very good at acting the extrovert. I didn’t think I was all that good at it, but when I mentioned this book to my mom, she was puzzled about why I had read it because she sees me as an extrovert. I was flabbergasted.
Did my own mother forget that my pre-school teacher wanted to hold me back from entering kindergarten because she thought I was behind in my social development since I didn’t like playing in groups? And what about all those report cards in school where the teacher wrote that it would be nice if I’d raise my hand in class now and then instead of waiting to be called on. Or even the many times I overheard my mom telling other people when I was little that I was shy? How could my mother forget these things?
Turns out she thought I had “grown out of it” because I was involved in drama in high school and because I’m good at talking in front of groups. But I explained it was easy to appear an extrovert when you have a script memorized. And as for speaking in front of groups, always terrified, always spend hours preparing, always pray that no one asks me an unscripted question. That happened once in a graduate seminar. I had to give a presentation on post-colonial literary criticism. It all went well until the professor, who really liked a point I had made, wanted me to elaborate on it. I had not prepared an answer for that question and all I managed to do was um and uh and stammer out what I had already said and a few other things that I am sure made no sense whatsoever judging by the looks on my classmates’ faces. So now, after that recent conversation with my very extroverted mother, I am afraid she is quite confused about me and probably suspects I am having some sort of midlife identity crisis or something.
Anyway, Cain writes about how we came to be a culture of the Extrovert Ideal, how it affects introverts, how it puts things out of balance, and how introverts, refusing to pretend any longer, can help bring about a better balance, especially in the workplace. It certainly won’t be easy for introverts to do this since we often don’t speak up for ourselves, but Cain offers some good suggestions on what we can do to create a space where we don’t have to fake it.
Besides being an introvert at work, Cain also talks about “mixed” relationships in which one partner is an introvert and on is an extrovert. In many ways a mixed relationship is good; an extrovert gets the introvert out of the house once in a while and an introvert gets the extrovert to sit down and be quiet now and then. But there is also much potential for conflict and Cain talks a bit about how a couple can work together and find solutions.
I feel like I am rather lucky in my partner. Bookman falls right in the middle on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. He is good at small talk, good at handling conflict and making demands (especially wonderful when there is a problem with a bill or service from a company), he always knows what to say in a large group and is never at a loss for words. But at the same time he needs regular downtime because he can get overstimulated to the point where he is bouncing off the walls. So he doesn’t mind spending Friday nights at home reading or a Sunday afternoon in the garden. Introverted me keeps him grounded and he brings some excitement and spontaneity into my solitude. We long ago developed a code. He is Tigger and I am Piglet and when he gets to be too much I will say something like, “Tigger, you have bounced your Piglet.” He will then either try to stop bouncing, or, if he can’t he will go find somewhere else to bounce, usually in a computer game or some other project where he can work off some of his excess energy. It is not always perfect, but it works more often than not.
Cain also discusses parenting and raising an introverted child. It can be particularly difficult if both parents are extroverts. She also talks about school and the things teachers can do to help their introverted students.
One especially interesting thing studies of introversion and extroversion have discovered is that 40 to 50 percent of our tendency toward one side of the spectrum is heritable. In other words, introversion and extroversion is in our genes. Genetics is not destiny, however, it only provides the push toward one or the other. Environment does the rest. Growing up, my introverted dad always balanced out my extroverted mom. He was always by himself out in the garage working on a car or some other project. His example made me feel like it was ok for me to hide in my room and read a book instead of going out with friends all the time. My sister is an introvert too. We must have all made my poor mom just a bit frustrated at times. Perhaps I inherited my introversion from my dad and I owe my mom a big thanks for the nurturing that has made her believe I’m an extrovert because I can act on a stage or speak in front of a crowd.
I enjoyed Quiet very much. I think most introverts will. But I hope it isn’t just introverts who read this book. I hope extroverts read it too. Introverts spend so much time trying to understand and get along in an extroverted world, it’s about time extroverts started to try to understand introverts too.