Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Cain explains how the Extrovert Ideal became the norm in Western culture then proceeds to define the reality of the existence of both introverts and extroverts, not just among humans, but in the non-human animal kingdom as well. She explains the pluses and minuses of both personalities and provides advice for individuals, parents, and businesses in bringing out the best potential in both.
This book has been all the rage among book bloggers, which probably isn’t that surprising. Readers tend to be introverts, and the book’s title certainly implies that it’s all about us. In actuality though, although the book does have a focus on introverts, it also contains lots of information on extroverts and how we are all different but equally valuable to the world. Indeed, the Introduction features a statement that basically defines the point of the book as a whole:
Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. (page 2)
After the Introduction, the book is divided into four parts: The Extrovert Ideal, Your Biology Your Self, Do All Cultures Have an Extrovert Ideal, and How to Love How to Work. As someone who was a History major in undergrad, I found the first section completely fascinating. It explains how western culture, particularly American culture, went from an introvert ideal to an extrovert one. It, not surprisingly, was all tied up with the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution people mostly interacted with people they had known most of their lives or who they would have time to get to know. After, if you wanted to make it in the business world, you had to make an amazing first impression. This push to give off the aura of friendly and awesome edged out the prior expectation to develop a moral character. This section also talks about how Evangelical Protestants take the Extrovert Ideal to an even greater extreme:
If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly. (page 69)
I’ve taken the Meyers-Brigg personality test multiple times at various points in my life. I am always solidly an INTJ. The I is for introvert. I was also raised Evangelical (although I am now an Agnostic). This section rocked my world. I even mentioned on GoodReads that it basically explained my life to me. Cain talks about how difficult it can be to be an introverted child or young person being raised in a culture of Extrovert Ideal. I wasn’t just raised in the American one (who just so happen to be the most extroverted people on the planet, page 186), but I was also raised in the most Extrovert Ideal culture within that culture–Evangelical. It’s no wonder I had some issues figuring out who I am and being ok with that. I can barely fathom what a difference it would have made in loving and accepting myself if I’d even just been told it is just as ok to worship alone in the woods as to be loud and proud about it in public.
The next section is more sciencey and discusses the biology behind personality differences. This section can definitely be empowering as it lets people know precisely how you became an introvert or extrovert. The overarching philosophy is that more sensitive babies, as in ones who are more easily startled or frightened of strangers, are predispositioned to become introverts. Nurture also affects this, of course. Cain discusses the good qualities of both highly sensitive and less sensitive kids and how how they are raised can either bring out the good or the bad in either natural temperament. Of course this is a great area for parents and those who work with kids, but it also explains to the reader how they got this way and what false ideas they might have about themselves. For me, this is the section that explained to me why I’m so passionate about causes like vegetarianism and mental illness advocacy. Introverts tend to be oriented around causes. An example of an introvert/extrovert pair who both got things done in their own way that Cain uses is Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. This is a wisely chosen example because both are people to look up to who played to their own personality strengths.
Personally I wasn’t so into the next section. As compared to the other sections that are three chapters, this one consists of only one. It essentially compares Asian culture to Western culture since Asian culture tends to idealize introversion over extroversion. I felt that this chapter was a bit rushed and less in-depth. Cain tried to cover both the experiences of Asian-Americans and all Asian culture as a whole. I understand that she wanted to address multicultural understandings of personality, but it does seem that this topic could be a book in and of itself. It felt a bit similar to the instances when in my job as an education and reference librarian that I tell a student their topic is too broad to possibly cover in one paper (or one thesis). It seems that a quick chapter on introversion versus extroversion worldwide could have been mentioned in the first section as a comparison without devoting a whole section to it. Similarly, the issues specific to immigrants to America from nations with an Introvert Ideal would have worked well in a different section. This would have felt more integrated and flowed better.
The final section contains advice on using your personality to your advantage in your life and also on how to strike a compromise with someone you care about of a different personality type. Overall, this section was well-written, although I felt not enough attention was given to “pseudo-extroverts,” introverts who have learned to pass as extroverts. This is a fascinating topic, particularly to an introvert who is constantly mistaken for an extrovert. I think this is the reality for a lot of people, and it deserved a bit more attention and research. For instance, Cain says in passing:
Emotional labor, which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. (page 223)
I really wanted to know more about this! Particularly since I care so much about health and wellness. It almost seemed as if pseudo-extroversion deserved its own chapter.
The rest of the section though was great and quite helpful. I think if everyone followed the advice in it on dealing with other personality types and creating a loving environment for kids on both ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum that we would have a much more positive world. Perhaps her best piece of relationship advice is A Free Trait Agreement.
A Free Trait Agreement acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time—in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time. (page 221)
So for a couple consisting of an introvert and an extrovert they will go out some Friday nights and stay in and snuggle and read others. Preferably about 50/50. Mutual compromise. It’d be good to keep this in mind more often.
Overall, this is a well-written, accessible book regarding personality psychology and the history of it. It does flounder in some places and could have used another once-over for structure and focus, but it is well worth your time to read.
4 out of 5 stars