Quiet by Susan Cain: A vindication

Cover image I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, and feeling much better about myself. In it Cain posits the idea that the modern world is designed to be lived in and run by extroverts. We’re all made to feel we should be out there bouncing around the world, meeting as many people as we can and having lots of fabulous experiences then telling everyone we know all about it. When we’re at work we should be pushing ourselves forward at meetings, shouting our ideas from the rooftops, leaving no room for silence or contemplation. However, as Cain suggests, based on a range of studies, one third to a half of us are introverts. We don’t cope well with constant stimulation but need solitude or quiet time in which to think and replenish our energies. I say ‘us’ because I’m an introvert, albeit a fairly sociable one. The prospect of a party does not fill me with joy, even when I know everyone who’s been invited – I’d far prefer to sit over supper with a few good friends and get stuck into discussion.

Cain – a fellow introvert, unsurprisingly – qualifies her thesis with a great deal of research both derived from case studies and hands on. There’s a wonderful description of a weekend course run by that doyenne of management gurus, Tony Robbins, who works up his adoring audience to such an ecstatic pitch that he actually has them jumping onto their chairs and dancing – this would make me want to run screaming towards the nearest exit, I’m sure, but Cain almost feels herself caught up in it. It’s an enjoyable read – enlightening and rather sobering in its conclusion that the skewing of our world towards the extrovert view dismisses the value of the kind of quiet contemplation that might make it better. Quiet makes me proud to be an introvert, and who wouldn’t want to be counted alongside the likes of Rosa Parks whose quiet, determined action brought about enormous social change.

When discussing all this with H – another introvert but one who’s learnt to work the room after attending umpteen academic conferences – I asked him if he thought most readers were introverts to which he replied an emphatic ‘yes’. I tend to agree, although the book trade is a highly sociable, party-orientated bunch of introverts if that’s the case. What do you think? Would you class yourself as an introvert, an extrovert or perhaps an ambivert? Cain is definite that there is such a thing. When it comes down to it, would you rather go to a party or read a book?

29 thoughts on “Quiet by Susan Cain: A vindication”

  1. I definitely think introverts learn how to cope in a world that thrives on the opposite and that we need both, a kind of push/pull balance. It’s good to validate the strengths of being an introvert and reading certainly slots into that part of us.

    This reminds me of a little survey I saw recently about which country you are best suited to living in and how physical versus intellectual pursuits propel us in different directions.

    I haven’t read Susan Cain’s book but enjoyed her TED talk which as you can imagine was quite a feat for an introvert.

    I would say I am an introvert who has had to operate in an extrovert environment in the past and has reverted back to more natural introvert inclinations since leaving the corporate environment and pursuing work activities that better reflect my own interests and passions.

    1. Cain’s very interesting on how we learn to fake extroversion, Claire. Perhaps she talked about it in her TED talk. I certainly learnt to do that but since working from home have reverted.

      1. Yes, I’ve come across this concept before and read about how introverts have had to adorn themselves in certain behaviours to progress in traditional corporate environments. It is very interesting to observe our own inclinations take back over when that pressure to perform in certain ways is removed, all reluctance and resistance removed, much less stressful. And in our own introverted way, we can still flourish and know that the persona we put out there is a more honest reflection of who we are.

        1. Absolutely! I was very pleased that this book did so well. A nice little vindication for those of us of a quieter persuasion.

  2. Reading Quiet was like being told it was okay to be myself. Suddenly all the occasions I was told to be more extroverted, that I was being rude otherwise, came clear. It helped that Cain didn’t write a book to make a splash, but backed up her hypothesis by evidence and case studies. Now I am happy to be called an introvert, it doesn’t feel like an insult any more.

    I think most readers are introverts, but that is based on the assumption that by readers I am talking about people who read more than one book a month. I think book bloggers are more likely than not introverts, I think all that time alone reading could exhaust an extrovert.

    1. Yes, it gave me a nice warm feeling about myself, too. I loved the image of her family all sitting around happily reading rather than shouting the odds.

  3. I’m definitely an introvert and find small talk with people I don’t know a real challenge (like at the Groucho Club last week!). Being single again now, the idea of dating in my 50s fills me with absolute horror – I’d much rather read a book!

    1. I read your Groucho post with admiration, Annabel. Walking into a roomful of strangers – even booky ones – gives me the collywobbles!

  4. The introvert-extrovert dichotomy (or sometimes it’s a continuum) isn’t necessarily about how outgoing we are able to be, but where our energy comes from. While extroverts are revitalised by mixing with others, introverts need a quiet time alone to recuperate.
    I recently repeated the Myers Briggs type indicator (which measures introversion-extraversion as one-dimension) and found I scored higher on introversion than ten years ago when I was working in a busy organisation. And my original score was pretty high to start with! I wasn’t particularly surprised at this: reading, writing and blogging has freed me up to embrace my introversion, but I still get excited when meeting up with friends – just don’t ask me to do it too often.

    1. Cain is very careful not to paint things in black and white, Anne. She’s wise enough to know that we all come in shades of grey. I do know what you mean about the way in which environment alters one’s position on the continuum – a combination of working from home and health issues which mean I’m often very tired place me at a very different point on it these days from where I once sat.

  5. Anne makes pretty much the point that I was going to make about the introvert-extrovert question being to do with where we take our energy from. On the Myers Briggs indicator where 0 is neutral my introvert score is 53. There was no one in the group within thirty points of my score. However, as a teacher and then a university lecturer I could bounce with the best of them. In fact one student once commented to a colleague that I was just so darned enthusiastic. What they didn’t know was what that cost me and that I saw no one after work during the week because I simply had to have the time to replenish myself. I haven’t read this book, although it’s been on my radar for some time. I don’t feel bad about being an introvert but maybe it would make me feel even better.

    1. I think you’d find it interesting, Alex. Cain talks about the way in which we fake extroversion when we need to – your work experience sounds like an extreme example of that. It’s something that I’m conscious of doing myself although, as you suggest, it takes up so much energy that I find it increasingly difficult to do for long periods of time.

    2. I’m in awe of you, Alex. I can’t see in the manual what the highest possible score can be, but you must be fairly close. I’m 45 up from 17 ten years ago.
      Susan, I haven’t read the book but am sceptical of the author’s saying that when introverts behave in an outgoing manner we are faking it. I socialise a lot less than I used to but really enjoy it when I do – but I also value the spaces in between. I think the difficulty for introverts can come about when we don’t realise we need this downtime or find it hard to claim it for ourselves because of others’ demands upon our time. Nowadays, when I arrange a meeting, I don’t just consider if that actual space is available but whether I’ve also got space around it – which does look odd to others sometimes but it’s becoming more and more natural for me to do so.

      1. Wise words about the necessity of downtime, Anne, echoing Cain’s in her book but I’d have to disagree with you about faking extroversion. I’m aware of doing this myself. As I mentioned in my reply to Jacqui, the most pertinent analogy for me is donning an entirely different set of clothes to meet the requirements of the situation. Very useful in my early working life.

      2. Anne, thank you for saying that. I have been feeling really guilty because I’ve just realised that this is something I need to do as well. However, my diary is very full and as a result I’ve had to cancel things I had promised to do for people I truly love. It helps to know that I’m not the only one in this position. I am going to go through my diary later today, block private days out for the next few weeks and commit to only putting things in on them if there is space on other days to make up for the time lost.

        By the way my complete MB score is 53-35-35-53 (INTJ). As I pointed out to the person administering the test, at least I’m symmetrical 🙂

  6. In a strange turn of events, I was reading her 2012 Guardian article just yesterday afternoon!! I nearly fell off my chair when I saw your post last night 🙂
    I can’t work out where I fit – I’m a chatter, as you know, and love meeting new people….but I need space to flourish and love my Swedish cave time. I wonder if I can be a UK extrovert and Swedish introvert..??

    I love this article – the SfEP posted it a wee while ago:

    1. Ah, Jess, I’d have you down as a social extrovert but I’ve never known a PhD who wasn’t an introvert in some way and often wondered how you coped with that. I’m not sure how you could have got through it without some introvert tendencies. So there you are, perhaps your an ambivert. Thanks for the link – I’m firmly in the introvert freelance category!

  7. Your review reminds me that my copy of Quiet has been (quietly) sitting on my bookshelf for a year and that I ought to give it a little love!

    A little like Claire, I’m very much an introvert who has had to flex her behaviour to work in a corporate environment in the past. When left to my own devices though, I’m far more likely to revert to my natural introvert mode, and for that reason Quiet sounds right up my street.

    1. Oh, I think it will be, Jacqui. I worked in IT before I stepped into the (much more comfortable) book world. I had to dress smartly which I found very useful, a bit like donning a different personality in order to cope with something that felt somewhat alien to me, and I could take it off at the end of the day. Very similar experience with that faking extroversion technique Cain discusses.

  8. This is really interesting. I probably come across as an extrovert in certain situations – in a classroom or in a group discussion where I’m talkative and quite often try and dominate (I like to dress in bright clothes too which seems to make people think I’m outgoing) but I’d much rather be at home reading, thinking and writing (in my pyjamas!).

    1. So many people faking it, or perhaps ambiverts! I think the introvert side will stand you in good stead for your PhD, Naomi. I can remember H going so far into himself at that stage that it would take him ages just to reply to a simple ‘would you like some tea?’.

      1. I can imagine how easy it might be to get lost in yourself when you’re researching intensely. I’m just grateful I couldn’t do a PhD when I lived on my own, I’d never have left the house!

        1. I think PhD students need a partner – not just for cups of tea (!) – but to bring you back into the world now and again.

  9. I’m extremely introverted. Reading Cain’s book was a revelation – you know the story about the lecturer who agreed to guest lecture elsewhere but hid in the toilets rather than go to the lunch afterwards? That’s me, absolutely. And eventually I had to give up teaching because the expenditure of energy involved was just too enormous, without enough time in between to catch up. I would give a big thank you to her if I could, because before I read her book I just felt like a failure, whereas afterwards I realised I’d been working against nature. You can do it for a while, but not consistently for a long stretch of time.

    1. I hope she knows just how many people are grateful to her. I’m so impressed by people like you, Alex and H – all introverts – who have managed to lecture on a regular basis. To have done it only once leaves me gasping in admiration – to do it week in, week out is astounding.

  10. I don’t know whether Cain’s book is responsible, but being an introvert seems to be fashionable these days. I’ve read a number of blog posts recently by people who say they’re introverts and then go on to describe behaviour which would have an introvert screaming in terror.

    To answer your question of whether I’d rather read a book or go to a party – book every time. In fact, I’d rather read the back of a cereal packet than go to a party. If it came to it, I’d rather just sit and stare into space than go to a party.

    1. Absolutely with you on the party front! I just about manage to drag myself to parties we’re invited to on our street and am very glad to have done so having made some good friends that way but it’s always fraught with angst and I’m always glad when they’re over.

      1. I’m invited to Christmas nibbles and drinks tomorrow evening. I have known everyone there for years and like them, but there will be more people there than I’m comfortable with. At least I won’t be making small talk with strangers.

        1. Indeed, that’s true and I’m sure you’ll be able to make a gracious and reasonably prompt retreat. Good luck!

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