While the title of “Quiet” intrigued me, and Cain’s interview on NPR piqued my interest in the book, it was, as always, a recommendation from a friend that tipped me over on the decision to read. I’ve spent a good deal of my post-college days attempting to fit myself into what Cain refers to as the “Extrovert Ideal,” and, as a relatively recent out-of-the-closet introvert, I’ve enjoyed reading material on the psychological evidences of introversion, in the way that someone does when they’re looking for affirmation that they’re still a functioning human being without any critical psychoses that require attention. What Cain does, though, is of even more interest to me, and that is to address how introverts struggle in a culture that prizes extroversion and views an introvert as someone who has something very wrong with them.
Now, before you find yourself thinking that Cain is launching into a conspiracy theory about how extroverts are taking over the world and the rest of us are left in the shadows to be forever forgotten, let me point out that Cain is, in fact, presenting a well-researched, well-balanced, and passionate exploration of how introverts can thrive in situations that ostracize them by nature, as well as the positives that extroverts contribute to society. She doesn’t shy away from condemning what requires condemnation, though, and begins by identifying the “Extrovert Ideal:” the structure of our culture which is constructed in a way to reward and set up as a role model the extrovert, the person who thrives in a crowd and is seen in the spotlight saying all the right things and knowing all the social graces. Her problem with the Extrovert Ideal is that it forgets the contributions of the introverts, or, worse, places them into a position where they cannot be productive in their special ways due to pressure to conform to a standard that they are simply not hard-wired to meet. This results in introverts making poor career choices because they receive the unspoken (or, perhaps, clearly spoken) message that something is wrong with them because they don’t enjoy being around people in large groups.
Cain, of course, brings prominent examples of introverts to the table, introverts whose work have changed our culture (Steve Wozniak and the first Apple computer, to name one). She also discusses at some length the trend in American public education to place students together in “pods” or groups that reward extrovert personalities while inhibiting introverted personalities from learning. Perhaps most compelling is Cain’s presentation of research that indicates consistently poor decision-making in a group context, as opposed to much more sound decision-making occurring when individuals work alone, regardless of whether or not they are introverts. This is particularly impactful to anyone who suffers through the endless meetings of the corporate world in which nothing is ever accomplished.
My wife and I have long discussed that we meet each other in an interesting place on the introvert-extrovert continuum: I am a social introvert, she is a shy extrovert. Cain confirms the existence of this continuum, using the terminology of high and low “self-monitors.” This discussion occurs within the context of introverts assuming a certain role that is out of character for them in order to accomplish a specific task about which they are passionate, as well as those who pretend in order to get through the day in careers which make them miserable. Both are survival skills, one is more effective than the other.
More fascinating research results discussed by Cain are current observances of behaviors in small children, and how future introverts and future extroverts process unexpected stimuli differently in infancy. Cain uses this research in the context of enforcing that we cannot choose to be introverted or extroverted, but are quite simply born as one or the other. She insists, however, that this must be balanced with the knowledge that we can control the extremes of our natural tendencies…as Jung said, anyone on either extreme end of this continuum would be insane. Thus, all of us have a bit of both tendencies, and this is healthy.
To list all of the perspectives Cain presents in this book would be far too lengthy for a review, and would not do her work justice. This book was very impactful to me, especially in her concluding call and encouragement for introverts to make the changes, accepting that we are who we are, to either make reasonable adaptations that we can live with in order to pursue our passions, or to leave the way that we are merely surviving in order to pursue our passions. There’s a danger here, of course, in the sense that an attitude of entitlement can suddenly exist when one is told that she is a member of a group who, unable to help who they are, have been oppressed by the culture and prevailing attitudes of those around them, leading to a sudden demand for unrealistic change and compensation. If taken to its extreme conclusion, Cain’s call to action could certainly be seen this way. However, to see this book through such a lens would fall into the same fallacy as being on the extreme ends of Jung’s continuum: the sanity of such a calling would be in question.
Ultimately, this is a worthwhile read for absolutely anyone, because it speaks to our businesses, our schools, our social strata, and how to best appreciate the humanity of, and interact with, those around us, regardless of their introversion or extroversion. As Cain’s concluding remarks state, introversion is not something that needs to be cured. We can as easily infer from this that extroversion is not, either. Cain’s book helps those among us who prefer to work in quiet to accept who we are, and to recognize that co-existence with those unlike us is not the pipe dream we once considered it to be. Whoever you are and whatever your interests, do yourself the favor of reading this book.