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Quiet: The Power of Introverts – Susan Cain [ Review ]

Quiet: The Power of Introverts - Susan CainAgainst the Extravert Ideal

A Review of

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

Susan Cain.

Hardback: Crown, 2012.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Jessica A. Kent

Chances are, you’re probably familiar with the terms “introvert” and “extrovert.”  Our tendency is to think of  shyness and withdrawal when we think of an introvert, and a kind of robust people-person quality when we think of an extrovert.   If you’ve taken any kind of personality test you’ll find yourself placed upon the introvert/extrovert spectrum somewhere.  Or maybe you’ve heard that we each get “recharged” in our own way, some alone and some with others.  In Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she goes about clarifying what we know about the introvert and extrovert personalities, adding cultural substance to the psychological definitions against which we frame ourselves.

Her book can be read as a study of what an introvert is and how they function, but Cain’s thesis is exceedingly more precise.  As implied by the title, she goes about evaluating how culture – especially American culture – more readily accepts the extrovert ideal over the introvert’s offerings.  Delving into examples from business, education, invention, sales, religion, and the creative arts, her book is like one of those pictures where you see a complete image, but upon closer inspection you see it is made up of smaller pictures.  In order to create the large picture of societal introversion, she pieces together many different examples and stories.

The reader begins the book with the story of Rosa Parks, the quiet but steadfast initiator of the Civil Rights movement.  Cain asks initial questions of the paradox of Rosa Parks: “Why shouldn’t quiet be strong?  And what else does quiet do that we don’t give it credit for?”  Introverts may be quiet, but they possess a set of skills that extroverts do not.  They tend to be very good thinkers, and will go very deep very quickly in a one-on-one conversation.  They tend to work best alone, without any distractions, and she uses Apple’s Stephen Wozniak as an example of a man who brilliantly forwarded computer technology by working alone.  Introverts also experience sensory stimulation differently than extroverts, which accounts for why they enjoy quiet places and little commotion.  The traits of introversion also breed more creative individuals, as “introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. … If this is true – if solitude is an important key to creativity – then we might all want to develop a taste for it.  We’d want to teach our kids to work independently.  We’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy.  Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”

She explains the concept of the extrovert ideal, or the assumption we make as a society that being outgoing is powerful, that being loud is desirable, and that being sociable is happiness.  She roots that ideal at the turn of the 20th century, when men like Dale Carnegie were learning how to be engaging public speakers in order to better their situation in life; the culture began to equate outgoing and engaging with promotion and success.  She traces the extrovert ideal through advertising that based its sales campaigns on the appeal of being noticed, getting a date, or getting ahead in business.  Even today, she explains, if someone cannot effectively make a presentation, or command a room, or be an assertive member of a group, he or she is considered as lacking.

Cain gives examples of how classrooms and workplaces today are set up to encourage more social interaction among students and coworkers, eliminating private space in order to encourage  public exchange.  The trend is what she terms “the New Groupthink,” or the desire for group collaboration over the individual genius.  Which, for some people, just isn’t conducive to creation or growth, as in the case of Maya who drowns in the midst of her more outspoken classmates during elementary school group work time, or as in the case of Don who struggles to find his place among an outgoing, bold, extrovert class at Harvard Business School.

Cain draws examples from many parts of culture, even from evangelical Christianity.  Adam S. McHugh, whose 2009 book is entitled Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (LGT our review), gives his story about the pressures to be an outgoing and engaging Christian.  “At first McHugh felt good about carving out more time for himself.  But then he got active in evangelicalism and began to feel guilty about all that solitude.  He even believed that God disapproved of his choices and, by extension, of him. … Contemporary evangelicalism says that every person you fail to meet and proselytize is another soul you might have saved.”  But in the midst of discouragement McHugh learned he wasn’t alone, and tweaked his pastoral focus to small groups and one-on-one encounters.  Still, McHugh questions the culture, as it seems that “If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love,” as Cain articulates.  It seems that there is still a balance to be found.

One of the dangers of reading a book like this about introversion is that we can begin to justify anti-social behavior.  Understanding how we are wired is to our advantage in that we’re able to better manage ourselves, knowing how our energy is depleted or charged, and knowing how much time to give to social occasions and how much time to spend independent of them.  But completely cutting out experiences that make us uncomfortable can cause us to stop growing as individuals.  As Tim Challies, Christian blogger and pastor, noted on his 14 February 2012 Connected Kingdom podcast, “My challenge…is to keep introversion from enabling or excusing sin.  Introversion can quickly and easily become a way to validate sin.  I can excuse selfishness, self-centeredness, escapism, lack of hospitality, rudeness. I can stay away from people and excuse it as being just the way I am, as being who I am.  I can be shy and quiet when the Lord calls me to be strong and bold.”  While Susan Cain doesn’t advocate a specific way of handling our introversion, she does give examples of situations where introverts do step past their comfort level – and manage to be very good at it – in order to achieve a goal or further a passion of theirs.  Rather than putting boundaries on introversion, she’s positively showing us ways that introverts have been able to push past their hesitancy to accomplish great things.  If anything, her book promotes the advantages of introversion and how an introverted individual can overcome the culture.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is a book for the introverts, to understand who they are and how they can navigate the culture around them.  But Quiet is also a book for the extroverts, to understand the people around them and how to better mesh with them.  A full and engaging book, Susan Cain has treated her subject with depth and precision.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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  1. Challis’ brief quote makes it clear his ‘faith’ is based on who he is and not so much on who Jesus is. Jesus calls His disciples to follow in His Way. It is not about oneself. Until 125 years ago the’ individualism’ so infecting modern day Christianity did not exist. “You could look it up!”, as Yogi says. Some have discovered recently and are saying that what Jesus said and did was to invite people to be His disciples and follow His Way, as it was called in the 1st century. Read the NT text to find this thought time and time again. The only calling Jesus does it to be His disciple.

    • Jim,  I absolutely agree with you about the ways individualism has overtaken Christianity, and from the little I know of Challies’ work, your comment is right on the mark.  HOWEVER,  I wonderful if the gist of his idea here — that there is a temptation for introverts to avoid relational situations that challenging for them — holds true whether one understands the faith as acted out by autonomous individuals or by members of a body.

      Just a thought…
      Chris Smith

      • Correct you are, Chris and I agree right back. Challis’ point/your point is the challenge for introverts; at least the most neurotic ones. There exists a huge number of ‘us’ who are well-adjusted introverts, otherwise. Without hiding behind the ‘God told me so’ defense, the intros, as well as the extros, were built by God and have the imbedded Breath; which makes them both viable disciples, but for the debilitating, run amok individualism. An excellent socio-historical presentation on NT times personality is found in an essay in Neyrey’s (ed.) book ‘The social world of Luke-Acts’. The essay I recommend is about the dyadic personality of the middle east, as we call it. It puts in perspective most things NT about which ‘we’ fail to have a clue here in the 21st century. I would recommend many essays therein for your ongoing work at ECC.
        Jim Montgomery… at most times an introvert

  2. Excellent points here – sounds like a wonderful book!

  3. As an introvert, I am so reading this book so I can stop feeling like a fish out of water! (Or if I still feel like a fish out of water, at least I’ll understand why. I hope.) Thank you for introducing me to this book!

  4. When wanting to visit a congregation for the 1st time and calling for their Sunday AM worship times, I always like to inquire which entrance door they have for us introverts to enter. It’s difficult to invade a new building without being assaulted by the extroverts hawking the doors… Anyone else notice something similar?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of robust public spaces – a typical feature in traditionally-built cities and neighborhoods – and the increasing privitization of spaces in our cities. For instance, in a lively public place, all sorts of people can gather for any number of reasons, and engage with others on terms with which we’re comfortable; at the same time, actual relationships can form quite naturally. Introverted folks can have solitude but at the same time, by their presence in a public space, contribute to the whole, and form relationships at a comfortable pace. Extroverted folks may initiate more conversations and use the space differently, but again, contributing to the good of the whole.

    In most of our neighborhoods, we’re more familiar with privitized spaces, in which all activity must be planned, or programmed; even if well intentioned to be low-key, there’s still some expectation that this is an ‘extroverted’ space; i.e., if I sit alone and read in these private spaces, it’s suspect. All this to say, then, that a decline in shared public life and spaces actually seems to contribute to the effects this book is talking about,