It is funny how someone speaking softly but with conviction can change a conversation. Susan Cain has done just that with her bestselling Quiet. The book is about the unique gift, the “quiet power”, introverts bring to the world, particularly American culture, which places a premium on extroverted behavior–group work, public charisma, being the life of the party. And this is important as she argues because one-third to one-half of all people are introverts. Cain is not arguing that we suddenly coddle introverts or that being extroverted is bad. Rather, she paints a compelling picture of what happens when introverts and extroverts can appreciate each other’s temperament and gifts. Her examples of this include Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
She introduces the book with a compelling narrative of her work with a young Wall Street lawyer and the negotiation she faced in terror that turned out with her being offered a job by opposing counsel. During the negotiation “Laura” turned to her “quiet power” and through persistent questions and proposal carried the day against her extroverted, brazen opposite. “Laura”, it turns out is our author.
The first part of the book focuses on the American extrovert ideal. Cain traces the history of this ideal and what she calls “the new Groupthink” and its manifestations in education, business, and even the church (she visits Saddleback Church at one point observing that it was “all communication” with no chance for reflection).
In the second part of the book, she turns to the research on temperament and argues that introverts are actually different in their sensitivity to stimuli, in how their brains process dopamine, and more. This is the most technical part of the book but Cain livens this up through first person interviews and illustrative stories including that of Franklin and Eleanor, and the contrast between the “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street and Warren Buffett. At the same time, she avoids a “biology is destiny” argument. Introverts can push the boundaries of their temperament in things like public speaking when it is for causes and purposes they care for deeply.
Part three is the shortest section, just one chapter, in which she proposes that all cultures do not share our extrovert ideals. Working in a university context with many Asian-Americans, I found this of interest because she suggests that the Asian ideal is different and that all the group discussions in our classrooms and the extroverted character of much of campus life poses real strains for many Asian-Americans. Part of the strain is the pull to deny one’s own cultural heritage and temperament, thinking the American is “better”.
Part four focuses on how introverts may constructively engage an extrovert world–when to act more extroverted than you are, how to talk to the opposite type and how to raise children who are introverted. Most enlightening to me was the idea of not “throwing them in the deep” when they fear something, but gradually and safely introducing them to new things. I’ve know introverts who received the former treatment in childhood who still carry painful memories of these experiences.
Perhaps it is part of her lawyerly training, but Cain writes with clarity, building a compelling argument in a quiet voice, with nothing extra. What I most appreciate, in contrast to some I’ve read on this topic, is that Cain does not come off “whiny” or with an entitlement mentality. She makes her case for cherishing the gift introverts bring to the world without downplaying the gifts of others. Her plea is one that plays not on guilt manipulation but the recognition of a tremendous opportunity to recognize what introverts add to our families, our organizations, and our world.