by Susan Cain (Crown Publishing, 2012)
In one of my middle school Spanish classes, which was either the first or second Spanish class I had ever taken, we were given a list of adjectives to describe ourselves, including introvertido (introverted) and extravertido (extraverted). Was I intravertida or extravertida? Perhaps you too have asked yourself the question: What type of person am I, an introvert or extravert? In her riveting popular psychology book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain examines the much maligned and misunderstood introvert. She defines introverts and extraverts as differing in how they regain their energy: while extraverts recharge by being social with other people, introverts recharge by being alone. Cain, who used to be a lawyer and consultant and is now a popular social science writer, examines these issues through many vivid case studies I won’t soon forget. She takes us to Harvard Business School, where extraversion is an institutionalized, competitive mindframe to make your way to the top. She visits a high school in the Bay Area, where, with its large Asian population, popularity is based on diligence, thoughtfulness, studiousness, and a reserved demeanor. She highlights and interviews a popular Harvard psychology professor who is wildly engaging in class and speeches but recharges himself after by hiding in bathrooms. She also shows potent examples from her own life without over-relying on them, such as overcoming her fear of public speaking, and her former job in helping families with personality clashes (such as a mother who is an extravert feeling concerned for how her introverted daughter acts at school).
Cain is an engaging writer, and her book shines in this aspect. Though there are notes in the back if you want to read more critically, the book stands well without them and is as such extremely accessible. There are also very short quizzes in the book to see where your personality matches (although she strongly cautions against the truth of these quizzes). She also raises some fascinating questions: How much are traits innate and how much are they taught, culturally and institutionally? How do we as a culture come to value some personality traits over others, and how does this manifest itself?
However, there are some things I must caution in reading this book. Most importantly, do not fall into the binary, self-fulfilling prophecy trap. That is, the qualities for both introverts and extraverts do not hold true for every introvert and extrovert. While I identify with many of the introverted traits (sensitivity, intellectualism, diligence, creativity), there are others I don’t conform to at all (hatred of small talk, fear of public speaking). Though we have our own behavioral tendencies, they are not prophecies that determine how you have to act. And while Cain briefly mentions that there are ambiverts (those who have both introverted and extraverted qualities), she does not emphasize them. Instead of using Quiet as a strict manifesto for why you or others act the way they do, use it as one tool to explain such things, and be critical.
Furthermore, Cain (who admits she is an introvert, and as you can gather from her subtitle The Power of Introverts, which is also her title for the website for this book) has an agenda of redeeming introverts, who she sees as unfairly maligned by society. That’s fine, but she writes as if introverts are inherently better than extraverts. Introverts are not magical unicorns who have been overlooked till now who will end up saving the world. Of course, the strengths of introverts should be appreciated, as should the traits of extraverts. Neither is inherently better than the other. The parts of the book on workplace productivity highlight this. If we understand each others’ tendencies, not only can we work better together but we can also have more empathy for others who act differently than us. This is what I believe the power of Quiet is, besides providing a voice for introverts who have felt misunderstood for so long.
All in all, Cain has written a fascinating book that provides great food for thought. Quiet is indispensible reading whether you’re an introvert yourself or you just want to understand other humans better.