Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I almost wish they hadn't added that "New York Times bestseller" strip across the top of the book jacket - it disturbs the cool, mineral quiet of the original cover. I fully understand why Susan Cain's Quiet is selling so well, though. Of all the books I've read so far this year - and last year too, for that matter - this is the one about which I've most often told my friends, "You've got to read it."

Here's the book's premise, from the Introduction:
We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual - the kind who's comfortable "putting himself out there." Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.

Introversion - along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness - is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we've turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.
Introverts, take heart - Cain is riding to your rescue (or perhaps just quietly sidling up beside you), providing more cures for your feelings of guilt, inadequacy, shame, or discomfort than you'd get from a year of therapy. Extroversion hasn't always been as highly valued as it is in contemporary America, she points out, giving a brief history of Dale Carnegie and others who helped make us a nation of self-marketers. And while extroversion is important, too much Groupthink can dampen creativity and impede progress. Introverts have gifts we ignore at our peril (Cain links the Wall Street crash, for example, to a shortage of introverted thinking).

Cain's observations range widely, from office space (down with the open plan!) to brain chemistry to education. She offers practical advice for the hypersensitive, for those panicked by public speaking, for parents of introverted children, for spouses of opposite personality types. Along the way she reports on research and tells fascinating stories. Though a lawyer by profession, Cain is an excellent journalist.

But much as I enjoyed Cain's writing style, the reason I've been telling everybody to read this book is because so many of my friends are introverts. If they're anything like me, they'll find Cain wonderfully affirming next time they find themselves at coffee hour in a strange church, or next time they have to navigate a giant get-acquainted reception at a convention, or next time the in-service education director brightly says, "OK, folks, let's break into small groups and share ..."

Oh, and it's OK if you blush when everyone turns to look at you. Embarrassment, says a researcher whose work Cain describes, "is a moral emotion. It shows humility, modesty, and a desire to avoid aggression and make peace. It's not about isolating the person who feels ashamed ..., but about bringing people together." A blush signifies concern for others.


Janie Halteman said...

Have you also read Adam McHugh's Introverts in the Church and other work on this subject? How do they compare?

LaVonne Neff said...

No, but I'd like to. Meanwhile, if anyone else has read them both, let us know!

Anonymous said...

I've read them both. In fact, Susan Cain interviewed McHugh and the two visited Saddleback together. The account of it comes early in her book.
"Quiet" is more comprehensive and discusses more research studies.
"Introverts in the Church" demonstrates how the Christian subculture tracks right along with the rest of America by valuing extroversion over introversion. Because of the emphasis we place on evangelism, extroverts are perceived as more spritual. He cites one study at a Christian school where 97% of the students polled said that Jesus was an extrovert.
McHugh's book helped me accept how God wired my brain. (I'm 9 out of 10 on the Myers-Briggs measurement of introversion.) I no longer try to pump many hands at the church coffee hour, but stand back and look for one other quiet person on the margin to chat with.