“Quiet” by Susan Cain

QuietTitle: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
ISBN: 9780307352156
Pages: 368
Release date: January 29, 2013
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Nonfiction/self-help
Format: E-book/paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

According to my family’s mythology, I was what you might call a high-reactive baby. The slightest disturbance would leave me wailing. I was picky about sound, about food, about the way fabric touched my skin. When I was a year or so old and still cried like it was my full-time job, my mom took me to the doctor and said, “There has to be something wrong with her.” My mother herself cried when she found out she was pregnant with the brother who arrived after me, and her best friend comforted her by saying, “Don’t worry. When God made Melody, he broke the mold.”

True stories! And you people wonder why I only got more sensitive.

According to Susan Cain, the way I process stimuli—touch, sound, smell, sight—has implications for my personality. I react strongly to the merest hint of shiny/flashy things, and therefore easily become overstimulated. That’s why I like loud concerts and parties, but only when I’m able to go outside whenever I need to chill out. I hate crowded rooms and certain foods and God help me if I should touch velvet. (Ughhhhh. I get the creeps just thinking about it.)

Because I respond so strongly to the smallest things, I find it easier to cope in places where I can limit my exposure to stimulants. Like a darkened room, all by myself, where I can plot my revenge.

That, Cain writes, is part of what makes me an introvert. So I’m perfectly normal! It’s science!

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race,” Cain writes.

And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

Yet, Cain points out, in the United States we have a predilection for the extrovert. “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable,” she explains. “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

So who, exactly, is an introvert? It’s pretty simple, actually. An introvert recharges his batteries by being alone, whereas an extravert gets her energy by being around people. It doesn’t have anything to do with being shy or sensitive or energetic, although (as noted above) these qualities often go hand-in-hand. “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation,” Cain writes, “while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.”

Cain sometimes muddies the waters by addressing all of introversion’s “cousins” under the same umbrella, and extraverts may feel a little left out or picked on. But overall, I found the book to be illuminating and helpful in analyzing my own social interactions.

“We like to believe that we live in a grand age of creative individualism,” Cain writes. “But the way we organize many of our most important institutions—our schools and our workplaces—tells a very different story.” Cain continues:

As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

Such activities are not only counterproductive to introverts’ spiritual health; they might potentially affect the way an employer views her introverted employee’s job performance. Beyond coming to a greater understanding of my behavior as a child, this book has truly changed the way I view my professional life. At times, I need to put away the shy self who wants to hide in a corner at a work event, and get out there with a smile and an icebreaker. Although Cain advocates for more social acceptance of introverts, she acknowledges the power of learning how to be an extrovert in some situations—work events, parties, speeches. The motivation for acquiring such traits, she explains, is passion:

According to Free Trait Theory, we 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.’

If something matters to you, you will find a way to overcome the qualities of your personality that may be holding you back from reaching your goal(s). However, recognizing that this is a stretch—that you would rather be at home in your pajamas with a good book—is key to maintaining a healthy, balanced life. Don’t force yourself into being someone else just because extraversion is all the rage right now. Just put on the qualities you need when you need them like a jacket, and discard them when you’re back home.

Besides, as Cain points out, things are changing in the business world. The interwebz allow you to do all your work from the quiet of your home, and social media allows you to be a leader without having to shake a single hand.

One final thought:

We all write our stories as if we were novelists, … with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives. …

Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Quiet from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

3 replies »

  1. I just finished reading this book during the holiday break. At many points, I found myself nodding and thinking, “That’s me!” I know now that I’m not the only person out there who prefers quiet social interactions with fewer people.
    Great review!


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