Still Waters

Reflecting on introversion in a world of extroverts.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain takes on what she calls the Extrovert Ideal, asserting that introversion has unfairly gotten a bad rap in contemporary society when in fact it has a great deal to offer in every area of life. For Cain, introversion is not a disadvantage—it is simply a set of traits that carries its own value, which has sometimes been overlooked.

The reader should note that Cain does not hew to a strict definition of introversion, which is defined somewhat differently by various schools of psychology; likewise, she uses the layman’s term extroversion instead of the extraversion that shows up in the psychological literature. Rather, she describes a constellation of traits that are associated with the common conception of introversion, though one need not possess every one of these traits to be an introvert: sensitivity, empathy, a need for time alone and a preference for one-on-one interaction over large groups, a tendency toward heavier conversation over small talk. Though it draws on studies across a variety of fields, including psychology, sociology, and neurology, Quiet is not even a pop science book; it is part affirmation, part social commentary, part self-help primer, supported by but not primarily focused on science.

Perhaps the section most directly applicable to daily life comes when Cain discusses introversion in the workplace. The recent trend has been toward organizing employees into teams and placing them in workspaces with increasingly open plans and less private space, but Cain quotes studies that find that group brainstorming produces fewer and lower-quality ideas than the same number of people brainstorming alone, and that the larger the group, the worse the performance; that true expertise requires focused and solitary practice; that more creative people tend to be “socially poised introverts”; and that employees perform better given more privacy.

Critics will clamor that group work is vital to creativity, that the greatest achievements are made possible by collaboration (cf. the responses to Cain’s pieces for The New York Times leading up to the publication of Quiet). They have missed the point. Cain is not in the least claiming that we should all shut ourselves away and labor in monkish solitude; rather, her assertion is that constant and forced interaction has deleterious effects on productivity and creativity.

It’s not a particularly complicated theory; it’s just that time alone “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work,” whereas in a group some members coast, others dominate more by their loudness than by the merit of their ideas, and others retreat under social pressure. The kind of collaboration that is truly productive, as Cain points out, often takes place from a distance — researchers at different universities, or people scattered across the globe and connected by the Internet — and allows individuals to discuss their projects when desired but then return to their own work. Cain is merely arguing that we mistake affability for creativity—that perhaps ideas develop better when allowed to incubate in thoughtful silence.

I am, I confess, an introvert (an admission I perhaps should not make in public until I have a job offer in hand!) and thus it was inevitable that I read Quiet through that lens. It was enormously validating. I am not, these days, shy or retiring, but I grew up as someone who might like books more than people, who lives in the world of thoughts and ideas inside her head—the traits that got me into college, and that I have become increasingly aware are really only an advantage until college. To know that not only am I not alone but to have these traits explained and given value usually denied to them—reading this book was for the most part one long internal fist-pump.

That said, Quiet is not a book without flaws. There is a problematic chapter devoted to East Asian culture, which Cain asserts is much more encouraging of introversion. It’s true that Asian-Americans have a reputation for being quiet, and yet I am wary of blanket generalizations regarding entire cultures; but Cain seems to be conflating different cultural norms of respect (i.e. whether teachers can be argued with) with the actual personality traits that make up introversion. A Chinese classroom may be quiet, but the same cannot be said of a Chinese marketplace. And after all, there is nothing louder than a Chinese dinner party except a jackhammer (or, as someone suggested, an Indian dinner party).

It is a chapter that makes me uncomfortable. I would like to think that my introversion is a mark of myself as an individual rather than a product of my culture. After all, my brother is a raging extrovert who had the misfortune to be born into a family of introverts, with the result that on the rare occasions when my entire family is home he is the one bouncing between the rooms in which the rest of us are silently on our laptops.

That aside, however, Quiet has much to offer both introverts and the extroverts who would like to understand them. Harvard readers may be particularly interested in sections that deal with introverts at HBS, the so-called “Spiritual Capital of Extroversion,” and professor emeritus Brian Little, an exciting lecturer and beloved teacher who sometimes hid in the restroom between lectures to have a moment to himself. Little is also the originator of Free Trait Theory, which states that people “are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits — introversion, for example — but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects’”, a theory that both makes sense of people who claim to be introverts while appearing to be extroverts and grants agency to individuals in a way that psycho-social theories often do not.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter, though — one that could make an entire book in itself — is the brief piece of social history that opens the book, in which Cain describes the shift over the last century from the “Culture of Character” to the “Culture of Personality”. In the former, what mattered was “not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private”; in the latter, the focus moved to the perception of the public self. One’s self became a performance, and with this change, the extrovert took center stage as the ideal personality.

There is something essentially cynical about the Culture of Personality —the idea that content doesn’t matter very much as long as it is well-marketed and easily sold. It is hard to deny that, all else equal, people who are louder or flashier or more charming will receive more attention; but I would like to think that good ideas have some inherent worth, that they should be able to speak for themselves. Call me an idealist, but to me Quiet seems also in part a gentle rebuke to a culture that values style over substance, in which people evince a desire to lead—to “display leadership”—without taking the time to think carefully about where to go.

As Cain shows, introverts and extroverts have a great deal to offer one another, for our modern selves as much as our hunter-gatherer ancestors: boldness tempered with caution, eagerness tempered with patience, interaction tempered with introspection. In the end, Cain’s point is not that introverts are inherently superior, or that we should all shroud ourselves in solitude; it is only that, in personality as in everything else, diversity provides balance and makes for a fuller, richer world.

Faith Zhang (fhzhang@fas) read this book alone. Then she wrote this review alone.