Last year I kept seeing Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain mentioned favorably all over the blogosphere, and being an introvert myself (I got 11 out of 12 questions as an introvert on the Quiet Quiz!) and highly intrigued, I put it on my Christmas wishlist.
The author traces the history from a Culture of Character, when disciple, honor, and quietly doing the right thing were valued, to the Culture of Personality, where being likeable and presenting oneself well emerged as the more valued qualities (fueled, among other things, by the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one and the need for salespeople), to these days esteeming charisma and overt extroversion. She draws examples from the worlds of business, education, and politics to show that Western society really is set up for the Extroverted Ideal, and she cites numerous scientific studies to show that introverts aren’t just shy (not all introverts are), but that they have physical, neurological differences that affect how they process things, and they also have many valuable qualities..
I was amazed at the many ways in which the world is indeed set up for more extroverted personalities, from businesses which put workers together in the same room to brainstorm and feed off each other’s energy rather than giving them quiet offices in which to think, to classrooms set up for groups, where contributing to class discussions is highly prized (she cites one classroom sign of “‘Rules for Group Work,’ including, ‘You can’t ask a teacher for help unless everyone in your group has the same question'” [p. 77] Talk about snuffing out individuality!)
The author isn’t saying that introverts are better than extroverts, but that they have valued gifts and abilities that society can and should make provision for, and that it is okay to be an introvert. Part of a larger quote from Allen Shawn says, “A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than a race in which everyone was Vincent Van Gogh” (p. vii). Both personality types are needed.
But she acknowledges that it’s not good for introverts to sit in a corner all our lives and never extend ourselves, and she suggests ways to interact in an extroverted world, like a popular public speaker who skips the social venues while on a speaking engagement to walk quietly by a river or hide out in the bathroom to “recharge” between sessions.
Probably one of the most helpful sections for me was a study of “highly reactive” babies. When disturbed in some way, the highly reactive babies would flail their arms, kick, and cry, but the other babies seemed to take everything in stride. I thought at first that the highly reactive babies would be the extroverts, since they were more vocal and expressive, but they became introverts. They reacted “not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly — to new sights, sounds, and smells. The quiet infants were silent not because they were future introverts — just the opposite — but because they had nervous systems unmoved by ” such stimulation (p. 102). As they grew older this high reactivity manifested itself in more stressful reactions to new people and situations, while extroverted people were easy-going. Turns out something called the amygdala in the brain affects our reactions. This came to a crux for me after TM: in even normal, not too busy and loud public settings (like a restaurant), I’d feel as if I were on sensory overload. Looking back, I can see I have pretty much always been this way. I think it just came to the forefront then because my mind and emotions were tied up with recovering from illness. Sometimes I’ve been stressed over my ability to get too easily stressed and wondered why I couldn’t take things in stride as easily as other people. It’s nice to know there is a reason! That doesn’t mean, of course, I should just give way to that and not seek God’s help as well as practical ways to react more calmly, but it does help to know it’s part of my make-up that I need to learn to deal with and not a character flaw.
Cain also dispels some myths about introverts: they are not all shy, they are not all bookish, they are not all sensitive, they are not anti-social — of the last, she says “introverts and extroverts are differently social” (p. 226). “When extroverts show up at a party, everyone knows they are present,” (p. 227), while an introvert will be quietly talking with one or two other people. Both do need and value intimacy, but introverts will likely have a few very close friends and small get-togethers rather than a lot of friends and big parties.
A chapter on communication, especially in relationships, yielded this helpful quote: “It can be hard for extroverts to understand how badly introverts need to recharge at the end of a busy day. We all empathize with a sleep-deprived mate who comes home from work too tired to talk, but it’s harder to grasp that social over-stimulation can be just as exhausting. It’s also hard for introverts to understand just how hurtful their silence can be…whatever the reasons for these differences in social needs…what’s important is that it is impossible to work through them” (p. 228).
This chapter (“The Communication Gap”) as well as the next on dealing with introverted children in ways that help and encourage them were probably the most helpful and valuable to me. It broke my heart to read one one set of highly extroverted parents seeking “treatment” for their very introverted son because they thought something was wrong with him. Cain shares a lot of ideas for both teachers and parents about ways to recognize an introverted child’s gifts and abilities and to help them in areas where they fall short, like social skills.
This book is written from a secular point of view, so there is a small smattering of words like “hell” sprinkled throughout, and I wouldn’t agree with the evolutionary reasoning behind some of the studies quoted. Some of the religious references are a bit “off,” such as this one: “The Western God is assertive, vocal, and dominant; his son Jesus is kind and tender, but also a charismatic, crowd-pleasing man of influence (Jesus Christ Superstar)” (p. 189). At first I was astounded that she would quote Jesus Christ Superstar as a reference, but then I thought maybe she was just citing it as one example of popular perception (though a mistaken one, in my opinion. Jesus was kind and tender, yes, but I wouldn’t call him charismatic and crowd-pleasing. Crowds did follow him, but for different reasons. But that’s another subject for another day).
But despite those caveats, I found this a fascinating and very helpful book in many ways. I would recommend it to both introverts and extroverts!
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)