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Quiet

by Rob Friesel

When you read Susan Cain’s Quiet, you must remind yourself of a few things:

  • This not introverts versus extroverts;1
  • she is not villainizing extroverts;
  • she is not out to glorify introverts and introversion; and
  • if it seems like she is making unsubtle generalizations, it’s because she has targeted a lay audience.

With this in mind, you are then properly armed to read and digest her otherwise wonderful book. The sub-title is a good place to start:

The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Not to judge a book by what’s on the cover, but we get the gist from that alone. Let’s unpack it:

What Cain has written is a book about introverts and introversion,2 the qualities that constitute them, the ways in which they (introverts) are strong and powerful, the places where their tendencies can work against them, and some of the strategies they can use to overcome those tendencies3–but also when to stand firm and acknowledge that you (as an introvert) need not bend. And when she makes that borderline inflammatory sleight of hand word with “in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, what she is really saying is that we have arrived at a place in our culture/society where we now over-value extroversion and extraverted traits: talking and group work, immediate action, open office floor plans… the list goes on. And while she does not quite go so far as to demonize all of these behaviors, she also is sure to point out that we’ve swung too far in the other direction–we’ve pathologized introverts and introverted traits. If someone is quiet, we accuse them of being shy and/or anti-social. If someone would prefer to reflect on a problem or situation, we call them slow and indecisive.

We have transitioned (Cain writes4) from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. We judge people by the first impressions they make, not by the last effects they have. We judge ideas by the candy-coating of PowerPoint presentations, and not by the facts and figures. In her words: “It’s an elitism based on something other than merit.” And while this sounds awful, and while it would seem easy to blame that “Culture of Personality”,5 Cain seems more interested in examining the whole picture. Who are introverts? What makes them that way? How do they perceive and make sense of the world? How do they react to the world? How do they react to and deal with other people?

And as long as she is already asking the questions, she decides to ask all of these same questions about extroverts.

The book is full of fascinating research and interesting anecdotes. I won’t go into all of it here, but I did want to remark on one particular point–what Cain calls “the New GroupThink”, and if there is any place where she seems to eviscerate our current social tendency toward extroversion, it’s here.

Cain’s “New GroupThink” isn’t exactly Orwellian6 but there is some palpable apprehension on her part–apprehension over the phenomenon’s pervasiveness and the threats that this poses to introverts. The New GroupThink is effectively the dominant cultural paradigm in which we believe (mostly falsely) that the work is team work and that the best ideas come out of brainstorming. She talks about how this is reflected in open office floor plans, how people are organized into teams in the workplace, and how students are arranged in “pods” in schools. She talks about authors like Gladwell, Bennis, and Shirky as kinds of prophets of this mode of thinking–and she calls them out as being effectively full of shit.7 Her problem isn’t with group work per se–she freely acknowledges that some types of work are (probably) best performed in groups, and that we need to prop each other up with our complementary styles and areas of expertise–but with how our immediate response to most questions and problems seems to be: “Let’s put everyone into a room and brainstorm a solution!” Cain’s opposition here boils down to two key points:

  1. That such situations effectively shut down and tune out introverts8; and
  2. that the research suggests that “brainstorming” actually produces bad results.

To the first point, the obvious problem is that group situations over-stimulate introverts, who would prefer time to think and who in many cases would prefer to write out their ideas rather than try to talk them through. To the second point, group dynamics can actually change your perceptions and alter your opinions; while discussing governments, corporate management, and academic institutions, she offers up this chilling quote:

But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.

Indeed.

As an introvert, I found this book in many ways validating. I saw a lot of myself (and a lot of my loved ones, on both sides of the spectrum) in this book. I walked away from it thinking: She’s right. I do my best work when I can wall off a few hours of isolation. I need the time away to recharge and to organize my thoughts. Why should I change to fit the loud mouths? And I don’t believe that to be na├»ve; I do not think it is unreasonable. And I expect to change by not changing.

See also: Susan’s TED Talk:

See also: an interview with Susan on NPR.

  1. As Cain indicates in her text: after much deliberation, she went with the popularly recognized “extrovert”, as opposed to “extravert” which is preferred in the technical literature. Thus do I go with that term here. []
  2. I say “introverts and introversion” because, as she points out by quoting Carl Jung (the originator of the terms): “…there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” Meaning that when we say “introvert”, what we are really saying is “someone with predominantly introverted preferences and tendencies”. It’s a constellation of behaviors. []
  3. Though I’ll caution you that this is not a self-help book. And in fact, she points out that many (most? all?) self-help books tend to slant toward extroversion: toward teaching you to be boisterous and more out-going etc. (i.e., to be a loud, pushy, and obnoxious jerk). []
  4. And suggests that this transition is “for worse”. []
  5. And (truth be told) in some places she basically does. []
  6. Though it may as well be? []
  7. Of course, she also presents Jason Fried as a counter-point to those guys, but the man who has called meetings toxic can himself be a bit poisonous, if you ask me. []
  8. Who (needless to say?) would rather “brainstorm” the ideas on their own first before discussing them with anyone. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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