Friday, February 10, 2012
Quiet: a look at Introversion
QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking / Susan Cain
What do I really need to say about this book? It has launched itself into the world with a huge celebratory splash! I've been seeing Susan Cain interviewed, reading about her and about this book and hearing people talking about the very important issues she has illuminated. And I don't believe that any of this is any more than what is justly deserved by this marvellous, thorough, and inspiring read.
I suppose I should start by saying that I am an introvert, and have always known that and been comfortable with it. However, others have not always been so comfortable, something that I know other introverted friends have also had to deal with. "Why are you sitting there reading? Go outside and play with the other kids." I heard that a few times, certainly. Or, "You've got to be more outgoing and improve your customer service skills", which I've also heard, and which in this context meant, be louder, more smiley, more chatty with the complete strangers who you come into contact with. Nothing to do with actually providing the service that the customer was asking for.
Thankfully those days are in my past. But experiences like this are reason enough for me to strongly, fervently recommend this book to everyone. Yes, EVERYONE. Parents, bosses, friends, coworkers, teachers, partners -- everyone. Introverts may come to a better understanding of themselves and find words to describe their experiences more clearly. Extroverts may come to a better understanding of the introverts in their lives and not be so determined to make everyone else comply to their preferences.
Susan Cain has created a very complete look at the way introverts are limited in our extrovert-focused society. She breaks the book up into specific themes; work, parenting, social life, and so on, and explores how introverts experience these things according to their personality preferences and how their preferences are often discounted or criticized because they aren't the extrovert preference. She is careful to point out that there is nothing inherently "better" or "worse" about either introversion or extroversion -- but that the Extrovert Ideal dominates our society and makes it difficult for many introverts to feel comfortable expressing who they are. The basic difference between the two lies in the way that each is energized -- introverts are drained by too much stimulation and recharge by spending time alone in a quiet setting, while extroverts feel understimulated by too much quiet, alone time and like to recharge themselves with lots of stimulation, whether physical activity, noise, or lots of other people. Shyness is a separate trait altogether, even if it is often confused with the idea of being introverted. Cain notes that a shy extrovert has it very tough: wanting to energize around other people but being afraid of social judgement (shyness).
I've read a number of books about introversion, but I particularly enjoyed this one because Cain is a really good writer who has created a book that flows, and enlightens in an entertaining manner. She explores super-extroverted settings like the gigantic American Saddleback Church, or a Tony Robbins seminar, and explains her points with plenty of fun anecdotes AND plenty of scientific studies to back them all up.
The key statement of this book is that introverts have valuable personality traits that shouldn't be discounted or ignored any longer. Cain compares the situation of introverts (who make up anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population) to that of women at the start of the feminist movement: their talents and skills were being suppressed and wasted under the masculine ideal, and she sees the state of introverts today as similar to this. With the current organizational structure of education, the workplace and social expectations all fostering the ideal of charisma, personality, togetherness and appearance, introverts have to struggle to keep up and spend much of their energy on coping strategies. Not to mention that they begin to discount their own specific personality and preferences.
The value of this book at this moment is that it has opened up a lively discussion of its themes, without the derogatory judgements of introversion that I've heard so often. Perhaps we are just ready for it, perhaps as Cain notes, our society shows some signs of looking for a quieter, less frenetic state of being. Or perhaps I've just been missing those conversations ;) I think that this is an important book, one which should be read by policy makers, by businesspeople and managers, by extroverts who need a little illumination. Introverts may have different preferences than those expressed by the 'norms' of the work world, but the introverted worldview, once given the space to flourish, may change everything.
Read this. Be illuminated. Change the world!