Thursday, August 30, 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet is a thoughtful, carefully researched, scientifically backed exploration of the science, sociology, and fallacies associated with introversion. I first heard about it on NPR. As the author, Susan Cain, described the problems introverts face in a world that idealizes extroversion, I kept thinking yes! yes! I laughed as she described the introvert's Saturday night quandary: Is it weird if I want to stay in and read? I know how I am, but I didn't know why, and I understand myself so much better after reading this book.
I'm not necessarily a quiet person, but I definitely fit the book's definition of an introvert: I strongly prefer to work in a quiet environment. I socialize best one on one, and I'm happiest in settings that allow meaningful, personal communication. Small talk and superficial banter are pointless to me. I didn't realize that "How are you?" wasn't a legitimate question that required a thoughtful answer until I was in my twenties! And I need downtime. Noisy, crowded venues are fun for an hour or two--and then I really need to go somewhere quiet to unwind and reflect. But enough about me. Let's talk about the book!

First, Cain explores the reasons extroversion became idealized in America and the fallacies associated with extroversion. Quantitative research shows that brainstorming in groups doesn't actually lead to innovation and collaborative workspaces don't produce better work. Furthermore, talkative people don't always make the best leaders.

Second, Cain explores the biological causes of introversion and extroversion. This was my favorite part of the book. In a nutshell: Introverts aren't necessarily shy. In fact, many of us are comfortable talking to just about anyone. But introverts enjoy less stimulation because our nervous systems are hyper-sensitive to external stimuli.  For example, a small taste of lemon juice causes introverts to salivate more than extroverts. SCIENCE IS CRAZY, RIGHT?! To find the "sweet spot" that feels good, introverts seek less stimulation, and extroverts seek more. So what feels like a great party to a stimulation-craving extrovert might be a jarring, unpleasant cacophony to an overstimulated introvert. Here's what really amazed me: Introversion and extroversion can be reliably predicted in infants, based on their responses to external stimuli. OMG MORE CRAZY SCIENCE!

Third, Cain describes the differences between American culture, which prizes extroversion, and Asian cultures that idealize introversion. I wondered what it would be like to live in a culture that valued a quiet person's wisdom over a chatterbox's prattle. I'm not sure I'd like that--I love communicating, as long as it's meaningful--but it was something to think about.

Finally, Cain explained how introverts and extroverts can work together, live together, and love each other while respecting each other's different needs. Here's an example: Extroverts obviously need social interaction and stimulation. Introverts need it too, but they like for it to be meaningful and one-on-one. A mixed-type couple can socialize smoothly together in more intimate settings that allow the introvert to pair off with one friend, while the extrovert mingles freely.

I learned a lot about myself from this section. It nailed the reason I was uncomfortable around Keith's extroverted friends when we first met. Every time we went out, we went to a loud, crowded venue or bar where I couldn't hear anyone or pair off into a real conversation. I was miserable! I liked the people, but the setting didn't meet my needs. This section also made me think about some awkward social faux pas (what is the plural form of faux pas?!) I've unintentionally committed. An extroverted acquaintance was weirded out when I talked to her about things that were "too real." At the time I thought she didn't like me, but here I learned that extroverts shy away from serious personal topics, while introverts love that stuff. D'oh.

Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, this book is packed with useful, thought-provoking information for understanding and getting along with different types. There is advice for everyone--teachers, parents, bosses, and even architects and designers. Open office floor plans aren't as productive as they might seem... read the book to learn why!


  1. As an introvert, I've wanted to read this one for awhile. Does it discuss the difference between shy people and introverts? Or shyness and quietness? Alas, the book has been checked out of our library for a long time (they've done some discussion groups on it too I think). Glad to hear it is a good read. I don't read a lot of non-fiction, and this looks like it will be good (when I do get my hands on it).

    1. Yes, Cain briefly discusses the difference between shyness and introversion: Shyness is social anxiety, and introversion has nothing to do with anxiety or fear. Then she shows examples of not-shy introverted leaders in the corporate and military worlds who provided wise, stable leadership and made thoughtfully considered choices.

      She also explains the biological reasons that introverts crave quieter settings and smaller groups, showing that it has nothing to do with shyness or fear--just chemistry and biology. I love all the concrete, quantifiable science.

      When you get a chance to read it, I'd love to know what you think!

  2. Very interesting. I never considered myself an introvert - I'm talkative, generally friendly - but your descriptions in the first paragraph definitely describe me. Perhaps I have introvert tendencies. My sister is an introvert and I think she would enjoy this book.

    1. It's a tricky thing to identify, especially because of the (false) shyness stereotype. But whatever your type, it's a useful read, because the end of the book helps introverts and extroverts understand each other's needs. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but Susan Cain's tone is light and informative. She keeps it fun!

  3. I am an introvert. This book has helped not only to own who I am but understand the extroverts that surround me.
    Recommended Angela Addiego - Bristol Bay Fishing Lodge


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