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Book Reflections – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain


Book cover of Quiet

It was with anticipation and interest that I read Quiet by Susan Cain after seeing Susan’s TED talk and hearing from a couple of friends that it’s an interesting book. I was painfully shy as a child but now I thrive in fresh and challenging environments to the extent that most perceive me as somewhere between accomplished and intimidating. I approached this book with a personal quest to discover where I sit on the Introversion : Extroversion spectrum.

Cain carefully draws together a tremendous volume of research and ties it together with a delightfully easy-to-read writing style. She draws on personal experience and many ‘case notes’ from her consulting work. The result is a fantastic and thought-provoking book that I read avidly and recommend unreservedly.

If I was to be critical, I would say that I found that Cain was too wordy and reiterated her points more than was required, however these are common traits of popular writing, particularly by Americans, and I suppose that she was trying to make her book accessible to all readers. Repeatedly I tried to skip over a few paragraphs when Cain was labouring her point (that I had grasped instantly) but then would discover that I had missed an interesting vignette or introduction to a study, many of which are embedded mid-paragraph.

I also found that Cain looked at everything exclusively through the paradigm of her topic of choice (introversion) and in so doing I think that she interpreted some things in a biased way, almost glorifying introversion at times and criticising extroversion. She takes all of the character traits typically defined for personality and assigns them between introversion and extroversion often in the way that will make introverts seem superior. While reading the book, I found myself framing every interaction through Cain’s paradigm and when I expressed some views to my husband he gave me a warranted check that will help me to return to a more balanced view.

A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh – Allen Shawn

Throughout the book Cain focuses on the North American cultural experience and perspective but this is largely relevant for Australia as well due to the strong influence since the advent of television. In the first part of the book, Cain takes the reader through society’s focus on extroversion as an ideal. In 19th Century American society the focus was on a Culture of Character in which the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private, presumably due to the strong influence of christian morals. In the 1910’s Americans began to embrace the Culture of Personality with a focus on how others perceived them.

The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer. Every American was to become a performing self – Warren Susman.

Popular self-help guides before the 1920’s valued the following aspects that one could cultivate:

  1. citizenship;
  2. duty;
  3. work;
  4. golden deeds;
  5. honor;
  6. reputation;
  7. morals;
  8. manners; and
  9. integrity

whereas guides in the 1920’s valued the following qualities that are either intrinsic or lacking but cannot be easily obtained:

  1. magnetic;
  2. fascinating;
  3. stunning;
  4. attractive;
  5. glowing;
  6. dominant;
  7. forceful; and
  8. energetic.

Society is itself an education in the extrovert values, and rarely has there been a society that has preached them so hard – William Whyte

Albert Einstein was introverted

Albert Einstein was introverted

Cain obviously put a great deal of work into preparing this book by assimilating the research of dozens of experts, by attending courses such as a Tony Robbins course, and interviewing many important people in the field. I enjoyed the many personal vignettes about herself and selected other people that Cain sprinkled through the book at pertinent places in her discussion of various aspects of introversion. I’ve included some information about a few of the interesting studies here:

Part 1

  • Cain presents a summary of the work of Wharton management professor Adam Grant who found that introverted leaders work best with self-motivated people by stimulating proactivity to yield great results. Conversely, extroverted leaders can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas and causing proactive workers to lapse into passivity, whereas extroverted leaders get better results from passive workers.

I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for the tandem or teamwork… for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding – Albert Einstein

  • To introduce the concept that team work can stifle creativity, Cain gives the example of Steve Wozniak who spent three months working alone in a state of ‘flow’ to build the prototype of the first personal computer. Ten months later he combined with Steve Jobs to cofound Apple Computer.

Engineers… work best alone where they can control an inventions’ 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 committee – Steve Wozniak

  • I can personally vouch for the veracity of this statement: Introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. I certainly found that during my 7 years as a dedicated research scientist. However nowadays 70% of employees in the USA work in open plan offices (as do I) and chairs in infant school classrooms are generally arranged in pods to facilitate countless group learning activities and this is certainly true of the school that my children attend.
  • In a study of expert violinists at an elite music academy in Berlin, Anders Ericsson found that the best violinists spent most of their music-related time practicing in solitude and described their chamber group sessions as leisure compared with the real work of solo practice.
  • Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister of the Atlantic Systems Guild devised a study called the Coding War Games. They chose 600 computer programmers from 92 different companies. In the study, the best code was written by programmers working in privacy with personal space and control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.
  • Open-plan office. Source: The Guardian

    Open-plan office. Source: The Guardian

    Open plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, elevated stress levels and get the flu.

  • Brain-storming doesn’t work! A study by Marvin Dunnette at University of Minnesota of 48 research scientists and 48 advertising executives found that individuals produced more and better ideas than when they worked in groups. This is likely because of: a) social loafing where some individuals sit back and let others do the work; b) production blocking because only one person can talk at once; and c) evaluation apprehension through the fear of looking stupid in front of peers.
  • A study by psychologist Solomon Asch gave groups of students an easy test in which 95% of students answered every question correctly. He then planted actors in the groups who confidently volunteered incorrect answers, leading to only 25% of students correctly answering the questions. Recent research by neuroscientist Gregory Berns revealed that in the students delivering the incorrect answer to go with the group, their brains showed heightened activity in the section that indicates they were perceiving the answer to the problem themselves and somehow believed that they had serendipitously arrived at the same correct answer as the group.

While extroverts tend to attain leadership in public domains, introverts tend to attain leadership in theoretical and aesthetic fields. Outstanding introverted leaders, such as Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Patrick White and Arthur Boyd, who have created either new fields of thought or rearranged existing knowledge have spent long periods of their lives in solitude – Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg

Part 2

In the second part of the book Cain probes whether introversion is genetic or environmental.

  • Development psychologist Jerome Kagan began a longitudinal study in 1989 of 500 babies aged 4 months old. At the beginning of the study he predicted that from a 45 minute evaluation he would be able to predict which babies would be more likely to turn into introverts or extroverts. The children returned at ages 2, 4, 7, and 11 and many of the children sat exactly on the introversion:extroversion spectrum as Kagan had predicted. He divided the children based on how reactive they were to stimulation, i.e. high reactive indicates very sensitive to stimulus like light, sounds, emotions, moods of other people, whereas low reactive indicates low sensitivity to these factors.
  • Psychology professor Jay Belsky found that the reactivity of a child’s nervous system can make them quickly overwhelmed by adversity but also able to benefit from a nurturing environment more than other children. High reactive children are more vulnerable to marital tension, parent’s death or abuse and suffer from a chronic and debilitating form of shyness ‘social anxiety disorder’ (25% of Kagan’s high reactive children have the disorder). However children who enjoy good parenting, child care and a stable home environment tend to have fewer emotional problems and more social skills than their lower-reactive peers. Often they are exceedingly empathetic, caring and cooperative.

Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Part 3

Part three describes the Asian-American experience in America, introducing the traditionally Asian approach of soft power (although there are many examples that I can think of Asian use of hard power we will leave that to the side). On our recent trip to Japan I was grateful daily for the manners used and respect shown by most Japanese people for those around them. As Cain puts it: Asians prize quiet, humility, and sensitivity, which foster group cohesion. If you live in a collective, then things will go a lot more smoothly if you behave with restraint, even submission.

Gandhi. Source: Wikipedia

Gandhi. Source: Wikipedia

In a gentle way, you can shake the world – Mahatma Gandhi

I actually think that Cain overstates the difference between what she calls European and Asians. I think that what she means are modern Americans, Australians and English rather than Europeans. I have travelled to Europe a few times and most recently spent 1 month living in Bologna then 2 1/2 weeks living with my extended family in southern Poland, as well as time in France and Spain. In each instance I felt that Europeans were skilled at sharing spaces and treating each other with deference and respect, especially in the case of my Polish family, many of whom live in close proximity to each other and maintain loving and considerate relationships regardless of how introverted they are and how harsh the winters are. I suspect that the individualistic culture of USA and Australia stems from the likelihood that extroverts rather than introverts would take the risk of moving to a new country on the other side of the world, the severing of ties to land, extended family, and community that comes with migration, and the development of the Protestant work ethic and capitalism into a meritocracy.

Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know – Lao Zi

Part 4

In the final part, Cain draws on more research but also brings it all together with suggestions to both introverts and extroverts on how to love and how to work.

  • Cain explores the concept of introverts learning to project traits associated with extroversion in order to have a higher impact at work and socially. This is something that I have painstakingly developed in myself and the benefits have been manifold.

A man has as many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinion he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups – William James

  • Cain offers tips on how introverts can communicate more effectively with extroverts and suggests strategies for extroverts to better understand introverts. Cain also dedicates a chapter to tips for parents and teachers of introverted children.

 The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed – Plato

Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again – Anais Nin

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2 comments on “Book Reflections – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

  1. Pingback: An ambivert in an extroverted world | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: My book group | strivetoengage

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This entry was posted on May 26, 2014 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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