Friday, December 6, 2013

Quiet - Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a
World That Can't Stop Talking
A lot of the nonfiction I read is memoir or biography. At the base, it's about someone's story. Very rarely do I pick up a nonfiction that is more informational than story-driven.

What can I say? I am obsessed with story, real or fictional. It takes a special book to break that barrier. This book did so with ease.

When I first saw Susan Cain's Quiet advertised, it caught my interest. I find this kind of thing terribly interesting. Cain's premise is that introverts are undervalued. She studies how the trait develops and how it manifests in schools, workplaces, and even whole areas of the globe.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of introverts and extroverts, Cain briefly touches on definitions at the beginning of the book. As she describes them,
"Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling...extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts needs to recharge when they don't socialize enough....Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussion."

Of course, throughout the book, Cain recognizes that there are no solid line between introvert and extrovert. Personality is nuanced and most people exhibit traits from both sides of that line. She reiterates this in every section. Yes, most people follow general rules, but, just like the English language, there are always exceptions.

Cain spends a good deal of time discussing how "America has shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality...In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable....The word personality didn't exist in English until the eighteenth century." This whole idea seemed so timely to think about, having just finished Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. The difference between modern culture and that of the turn of the century is never more evident than when reading of the strict rules for socialization in the Gilded Age.

The change came for Americans in the early twentieth century. Cain points out that "It was no coincidence that that in the 1920s and the 1930s, Americans became obsessed with movie stars." I did wonder if this particular example is a case of chicken and the egg.  Technology brought sound and color to the screen and movie stars had to become more vivid as well. Did this phenomenon come because of a change in culture, or did technology serve as a catalyst? 

This shift in culture, whatever its cause, has affected every level of our society, starting with the classroom. Extroversion is valued in school in particular, with group work becoming increasingly prevalent. Desks are in clumps, not rows. Group projects carry a heavy percentage of final grades. 

With the trait holding such weight in the classroom, parents often become worried when their child does not display extroversion, especially if the parent is an extrovert himself. As an introverted child, " might have been prodded to 'come out of your shell' - that notorious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter wherever they go, and that humans are just the same."

Many children learn to "fake it." They mimic traits of their extroverted peers and get by. Others suffer social isolation or never quite seem to fit in.  "We often marvel at how introverted, geeky kids 'blossom' into secure and happy adults. We liken it to a metamorphosis. However, maybe it's not the children who change but their environments."

Of course, few graduates of the education system are rewarded with a workplace that suddenly understands them and their needs.  Workplaces, like schools, cater to the extroverted. American business celebrates the go-getter, the one who always make an enigmatic, convincing presentation or who takes the risks necessary to get to the top.  "Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule."

Similar to classrooms, workplaces are set up in a style to encourage collaboration. Large rooms full of cubicles are the norm, rather than quiet offices with few distractions. Cain knows what many employers do not: "It's...vital to recognize that many people...need extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work."

I fall solidly into that category. One of the largest reasons I took the job I am in now is because I got my own office. There are few things I value more during the work day than the ability to close my door and block the world out. Those times are, without doubt, when I get my best work done.

Cain also looks at the demographics of CEOs and the leaders of the business world. Many are extroverts. However, she again cries for balance here saying, "We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run." 

Being an extrovert is not always the key to success. Sometimes a gentle, but firm approach is necessary. "Aggressive power beats you up; soft power wins you over." Think of the impact that idea could have if truly implemented from the top down. But, alas, it is our foregone Culture of Character that values such thoughts, not ours of Personality.  We see this from the very top of our culture. After all, Cain remarks, " made up of some of the least sensitive people in the county."

Cain spends a chapter discussing how this celebration of extroversion is not a worldwide thing. Western cultures are much more extroverted than those in the East. This manifests itself in many ways that Cain explores. According to Cain, tending toward extroversion is literally in our DNA.  She points to this as a possible explanation for why Western countries became world powers,
"[The Extrovert Ideal] has been found to be less prevalent in Asia and Africa than in Europe and America, whose populations descend largely from the migrants of the world. It makes sense...that world travelers were more extroverted than those who stayed home."
Cain even spends a small amount of time exploring how the different cultural approaches of Eastern and Western cultures manifests itself in religion. Many Eastern religions are centered around personal growth and achievement. Christianity, the predominant religion of the West, preaches extroversion through personal evangelism. As a introverted Christian, I recognize this as a very generic view of Christianity. I'm not saying I agree entirely with Cain's point here; just that it is her point. 

Despite being a strong advocate for introverts and focusing the book on them, Cain never loses sight of the value of extroverts. She recognizes the need for balance in our society. In the very beginning of the book, she references leaders of the Civil Rights movement as an example:
"Take the partnership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.: a formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn't have had the same effect as a modest woman who'd clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation. And Parks didn't have the stuff to thrill a crowd if she'd tried to stand up and announce that she had a dream. But with King's help, she didn't have to."
To make the largest difference, we need both personality types. Examples such as Parks and King crop up all throughout history.

I cannot recommend this book strongly enough, to introverts or extroverts. As an introvert, I found it so encouraging and affirming. Fellow introverts, you will love this book. Extroverts, I firmly believe that you will, too. Cain lays complicated things out in simple ways, making them understandable and relatable. No matter how you classify your own personality, you will learn about yourself and about how to best engage those around you. 

In the end, we all must interact with the introverts and extroverts around us. Learning about each other and the motivations behind our actions can only help those relationships improve.  I think Cain puts it best when she says, "Love is essential; gregariousness is optional."

Pages: 368
Date Completed: November 27, 2013

Are you an introvert or extrovert? 

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