Book Review–Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Book Review–Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

by Susan Cain. The U.S. is obsessed with extroversion. We organize classrooms and workplaces in open space design with little privacy. Jobs are advertised for potential employees “who have enthusiasm!” Quiet kids are encouraged to break out of their “shell” or even sent to therapists for their apparent problems “relating” to other children. The DSM-IV (that bulky and often controversial diagnostic manual for psychiatrists) lists fear of public speaking as a disease (right alongside homosexuality and caffeine withdrawal?) “They [people in the U.S.] became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.” These…continue reading →

Book Review–Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

by Susan Cain.

The U.S. is obsessed with extroversion. We organize classrooms and workplaces in open space design with little privacy. Jobs are advertised for potential employees “who have enthusiasm!” Quiet kids are encouraged to break out of their “shell” or even sent to therapists for their apparent problems “relating” to other children. The DSM-IV (that bulky and often controversial diagnostic manual for psychiatrists) lists fear of public speaking as a disease (right alongside homosexuality and caffeine withdrawal?)

“They [people in the U.S.] became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.”

These topics only skim the surface of Cain’s Quiet. In Chapter 2 (“The Myth of Charismatic Leadership: The Culture of Personality, a Hundred Years Later”), Cain goes to a stiffly priced ($895) Tony Robbins’s self-help seminar where she attempts to “understand the Extrovert Ideal.” She follows this up with a trip to Harvard Business School, where students assert, “there are no introverts here.” Of course, Cain quickly meets a Chinese-American student named “Don” who is exhausted by the constant socializing and talkative “Learning Teams” at the school. Don observes that in U.S. society people focus on “turning experiences into stories” whereas in Chinese culture this may be considered rude to take up another person’s time. U.S. culture also tends to listen to the more vocal people—the ones who exude charisma and therefore sell ideas. Ah.

“We also see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means that he becomes increasingly powerful as a meeting goes on.”

Cain argues that the U.S. values presentation more than substance or ideas (and cited research generally supports that belief). She continues to find this Extrovert Ideal in evangelical churches, where singing and shouting trump any sort of spiritual contemplation (although I have to say the the best church I’ve attended included singing and dancing!) And then Cain goes on to discuss a very related topic—“When Collaboration Kills Creativity” (I think I almost cheered at that chapter title).

Cain focuses on Steve Wozniak (the lesser known cofounder of Apple Computer—Steve Jobs being the other half) and his advice on creativity:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee…”

This contradicts our contemporary reality and our insistence on jacked-up and seemingly relentless teamwork. Cain refers to this concept as the “New Groupthink.” Cain argues that even trendy writers (hello, Malcolm Gladwell) embrace this type of Groupthink, which has trickled into the workplace. Apparently “A recent survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe that teams are the key to success.” (Are these the same people that think corporate logoed Christmas tree ornaments are a welcome substitute to a monetary bonus?)

Cain discusses that studies have actually shown that overall performance gets worse with increased group size (although small groups can be great). Introverts and extroverts think differently, and sometimes this high value of loud and aggressive talkers gets us into trouble (hence a long piece regarding the 2008 stock market crash). Of course, Warren Buffet isn’t just rich because he is an introvert, but certain things may not have happened with more cool-minded folks in power (argues Cain and others).

Quiet then goes on to examine the implications of culture. One Chinese-American student described her difficulties with the U.S. education system and “classroom discussion”, which would be considered ill mannered in Chinese education. Cain also attends a workshop by Preston Ni, a Taiwanese-born professor, titled “Communication Success for Foreign-Born Professionals” for those struggling to succeed in U.S. workplaces. Cain points out that recognizing cultural differences is relevant, though neither is “superior” and referring to certain groups (in this case “Asians,” which encompasses a very diverse group of people) as the “model minority” in education is superficial and condescending (um, yeah).

Cain finishes by considering “How to Love, How to Work” and how introversion can be such a barrier in our hyper-extroverted country. Some research argues that most people are introverted or extroverted depending on situation (and of course, this “switching” to extroversion may be absolutely necessary to succeed in the workplace). Cain talks to a professor named Brian Little, who frequently finds himself in a bathroom stall just to “get away” after giving (apparently stirring) public speeches. Little refers to places where you can return to your true self as “restorative niches” (and yes, this sometimes comes in the form of a bathroom stall).

Although Cain isn’t always totally relatable (as a former Wall Street lawyer who has incredible access to all sorts of people and places)…she is also an introvert and clearly passionate about the topic. Sometimes the examples in Quiet are foreign unless you work in the corporate world—although it is (mostly) easy to relate the concepts to any type of workplace or education system. Overall, Quiet is meticulously researched and articulately written.

To end with a charming quote (that summarizes my like of this book), here is a letter from Charles Darwin to a mathematician friend that has invited him to a dinner party:

“My dear Mr. Babbage,

I am very much obliged to you for sending me cards for your parties, but I am afraid of accepting them, for I should meet some people there, to whom I have sworn by all the saints in Heaven, I never go out.”

This article has 1 comments

  1. Linda Reply

    Makes me want to read this one, and also to remind myself to ‘shut up’……thanks Sarah

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