A voice that needs to be heard

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be one of the most important books of the last one hundred years. It is certain to be one of the most underrated.

I pick the timescale advisedly. Susan Cain starts the first chapter of Quiet in 1902 with the story of Dale Carnegie, whom she views as marking the beginning of America’s “culture of personality” – a fixation with an “extrovert ideal” which has come to dominate everything from the preschool classroom to the Wall Street boardroom. And not just in the USA, but increasingly in the rest of the Western world.

There’s a problem with that, she says. I would agree.

The problem is that one-third to one-half of the population, if they were subjected to a Myers-Briggs test, would identify themselves as introverts. And introvert has, particularly in America, become a dirty word.

Cain takes pains to point out that introversion and extrovertion are not value judgments; they define where we get and where we spend our energy. Extroverts draw energy from social situations and find themselves drained by solitude. The introvert draws energy from solitude and is drained by the crowd. Most of us will recognise one or other of these about ourselves.

It is not only that the culture of personality and participation leaves many introverts feeling left out, though it does. Cain records case study after case study where the most influential voice in the room is the loudest, rather than the one with the most valuable things to say. She is alarmed by teaching styles which reward participation over achievement, everywhere from first grade to Harvard Business School. (I might have said something about these teaching styles myself a while ago…)

More disturbing, though, is the marginalisation of the the particular qualities that introverts offer. Cain examines the culture and practice of the banking industry in the years leading to the 2008 stock market crash, where (according to one senior Wall Street trader she cites) aggressive extrovert risk-takers were idolised for their short-term financial returns; and those who took a more balanced, judicious, calculated and measured approach – introverts – were ignored. The stock market crash was a result of one hundred years’ aggressive, relentless pursuit of the extrovert ideal.

Cain doesn’t just throw these assertions around; there are pages of clinical and scientific research supporting them. Along the way she throws an interesting and helpful light on the nature/nurture debate, citing research which shows we are born with certain characteristics, and can learn to stretch them – but like a rubber band, only to a certain point.

She tells her own story in support of this, in particular the way she learned to use her soft-spoken and measured approach to good effect in aggressive business situations, and the way she has learned to enjoy public speaking and even get energy from it. She also writes about Alison, a self-confessed extovert who has learned to appreciate introspective down-time with her (introvert) close friends and family. Alison has in fact come to value the insight these close friends have into her life and behaviour.

Indeed, an important element of the book is the power of an introvert/extrovert pairing. From Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, via Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, to FDR and Eleanor (who get an entire chapter), Cain demonstrates how the power and reach of their combined characteristics was a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Although she does not say so explicitly, one telling factor in each of these partnerships is that neither person tried to change the characteristics of the other; they were all built on a clear understanding of the partners’ complementary qualities. Cain’s overriding call throughout the book is for balance; she offers excellent practical advice for bringing more of this balance into our lives.  (Again, it’s an idea about which I feel strongly.)

Cain also tackles the extrovert ideal in American churches, with a visit to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, where she meets a pastor who is clearly uncomfortable in his surroundings, despite his genuine admiration for Warren and his work. She identifies a need for quiet and contemplation in worship, and points to the risk of worshippers beginning to question their faith in God because they cannot get fired up by the high-octane environment.

(There is a strong parallel here with the point made by John E. Colwell in his excellent book Why Have You Forsaken Me?. He notes that a significant proportion of the Psalms, our oldest source of worship material, are psalms of lament rather than of praise; and though some do, not all of them end on a note of optimism. He observes that the Book of Common Prayer provides for every one of these psalms to be said or sung in the course of a month, but many of them have been excluded from our shared consciousness by more modern forms and patterns of worship. “On any give Sunday in any congregation,” he asks, “just what proportion come bubbling over with ecstatic cheerfulness and what proportion come anxious, confused, disillusioned?” Unrelenting exuberance can be hollow, he says; something more is needed “of sufficient weight to sustain faith through oppression and pain”.)

Part Three of the book considers the very different experience of Asian-Americans, both in their own company (in a predominantly Asian-American high school in California) and in the wider world when they move on to college. Inevitably, many Asian-Americans feel profoundly uneasy on encountering the extrovert ideal, but the concept of “soft power” discussed in this part of the book is one from which the West could afford to learn. (It remains to be seen over the coming decades whether globalisation, particularly the growing influence of China’s economy, has any effect on cultural and business norms in the West. One can but hope.)

For the frustrated introvert trapped in an extrovert social or business culture, Cain offers the helpful notion of ‘sweet spots’ – places one can briefly go during the day to recharge and re-establish one’s equilibrium. She also offers some evidence of employers starting to wake up to people’s different needs, moving beyond crude open-plan working to a more flexible environment including quiet spaces, cafés and informal meeting areas. Having spent the last five years creating just such working environments, I can testify to how well they work for introverts, provided the organisational culture adapts to match. And I’d do more or less anything to work for one employer she mentions, which has decided to make all meetings optional!

Perhaps the greatest practical gift that Cain offers introverts, though, is her strong and consistent reassurance that it’s OK to be this way. We have extraordinary strengths to offer, strengths that are badly needed, and the last thing we should do is try to change and be “more like the other guys”. Throughout the book, she argues for us to pursue our passions and convictions – our “core personal projects”, as she calls them – and she gives reassuring advice on when and how to adapt to an extrovert environment and adopt an extrovert persona for the sake of a greater goal, without compromising our real selves.

And she urges us to retain control of the writing or our life story, reminding us to find meaning in our obstacles, and concluding the book with “one of the great insights of Western mythology: that where we stumble is where our treasure lies.” (Does that ring any bells?)

She helps to change the vocabulary, too, introducing the term “highly sensitive”, coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, whose work has done a great deal to destigmatise introversion, and who seeks to reverse the damaging use of terms like “negativity” and “inhibition”.

Cain’s own sensitivity is a delightful presence throughout the book, not least in her thoughtful descriptions of many of her interviewees. Even the design of the book, with its plain white cover and almost invisible title, and typesetting one or two point sizes smaller than the norm, somehow says that this is a book that demands to be read quietly and thoughtfully, in the spirit in which it was written.

The risk, of course, is that it will be – but only by those who are already warm to her ideas. The impact of a century of the extrovert ideal on American business and politics, and increasingly on Europe as well, can be seen and felt by every one of us every day, whether in terms of the banking crash or of hastily conceived foreign policy. The power-brokers of Western business and politics will ignore this book, but they will do so at their – and our – peril. A quiet revolution is needed; I suspect it is up to us introverts to make sure it happens.


Watch Susan Cain’s TED talk:

Visit her website:  Quiet Revolution

View all my reviews

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3 Responses to A voice that needs to be heard

  1. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    As always, Ben, a thoughtful and considered review – and two books in it I now want to read. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: “…that thing indoors each one dwells” | Things Unrespected

  3. Pingback: City Living | Things Unrespected

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