Quiet (by Susan Cain)

I had never heard of Susan Cain, but this book was highly recommended in a couple of places - I forget exactly where - so I put it on my wishlist a couple of years ago, and was given it for my birthday last year (2016, that is).

‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ is a little daunting at first glance. It’s over 300 pages in quite a small font, and flicking through I couldn’t see many page breaks or subheadings. However, I was intrigued as I saw it sitting on my to-read shelf, and finally picked it up early in October.

It took me a while to get into the book. The introduction describes the idea of extroversion and introversion as opposites, using the words more as the general populace understands them than according to any of the standard personality theories. They feel a tad stereotyped: we meet the gregarious, charming extravert who loves to talk, and the quiet, shy introvert who never knows what to say. As a strong introvert myself, I kept wanting to point out that it’s not exactly like that…

But I decided to accept the author’s more general use of the words - I fit into the introvert category no matter how it’s defined - and kept reading. The first couple of chapters were even more off-putting; they looked at extroversion as a ‘cultural ideal’ in the United States, both past and present, and the author interviewed potential leaders at an American university which, I gather, cultivates high-powered business people.

I put the book down, as I knew nothing about the places or companies mentioned, and forgot about it until about a week ago. Then I decided to finish reading it by the end of the year. I divided the remaining pages by the number of days remaining, and have read the bulk of the book since then. I’ve found most of it interesting; I liked it a lot better once it moved beyond the very American focus of the first couple of chapters. The author is an introvert herself, and she looks at ways introverts can become successful in business, in relationships, even in public speaking if they are passionate about the topic concerned.

There’s some biology - research has shown that introverts and extroverts have different brain patterns, and that these facets of temperament can be determined, with a high degree of accuracy, from their reactions to new situations as small babies. It’s not too technical, and I found it fascinating. There are comparisons between different cultures, showing how many quietly spoken and highly intelligent Asian students struggle in the extraverted, group culture of American universities.

I was a little confused by the assumption that Europeans also hold the ‘extrovert ideal’; I don’t think that’s true in the UK, nor in many of the northern European countries, although extroversion does seem to be prized more highly in the Mediterranean countries. I never had any problems of the kind described growing up as an introvert; I like small groups, and quite enjoyed collaborative projects at school; most of my time was still spent working alone. 

Still, stereotypes and generalisations are inevitable in a book of this sort. It looks at case studies, at extensive research, and the author spoke to and interviewed many individuals. It’s a positive book for people who hold the ‘extrovert ideal’, assuming they would ever take the time to sit down and read it. The saddest story was about a gregarious couple who insisted on ‘therapy’ for their quiet, introverted son, wanting him to be more ambitious, more outgoing and more aggressive. The author recommends small, flexible school options for introverted children though I was surprised that she didn't suggest home education. 

The book was recommended as eye-opening, and also as excellent validation for introverts. I didn’t see it that way; but it was encouraging to read that there are specific biological factors that make people like me averse to risks, uncomfortable in new situations, and easily overwhelmed by loud noises and bright lights. The importance of downtime is stressed, and it’s made clear that introversion is not at all the same thing as being anti-social.

I would recommend this to anyone who thinks that there’s something wrong with (or weird about) quiet, non-assertive people. It could also be useful for anyone who has been pushed outside their comfort zone into public speaking or heavy socialising.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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