|“Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.”
Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’ Argues for the Power of Introverts
By JUDITH WARNER
Published: February 10, 2012
My neighbor, a leadership development consultant who regularly helps people improve themselves through personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, once told me I was the most introverted person he’d ever met. I took this as a compliment. Who wouldn’t?
The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
By Susan Cain
333 pp. Crown Publishers. $26.
The introverts who are the subject of Susan Cain’s new book, “Quiet,” don’t experience their inwardness in quite so self-congratulatory a way.
They and others view their tendency toward solitary activity, quiet reflection and reserve as “a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” Cain writes. Too often denigrated and frequently overlooked in a society that’s held in thrall to an “Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight,” Cain’s introverts are overwhelmed by the social demands thrust upon them. They’re also underwhelmed by the example set by the voluble, socially successful go-getters in their midst who “speak without thinking,” in the words of a Chinese software engineer whom Cain encounters in Cupertino, Calif., the majority Asian-American enclave that she suggests is the introversion capital of the United States.
Many of the self-avowed introverts she meets in the course of this book, which combines on-the-scenes reporting with a wide range of social science research and a fair bit of “quiet power” cheerleading, ape extroversion. Though some fake it well enough to make it, going along to get along in a country that rewards the outgoing, something precious, the author says, is lost in this masquerade. Unchecked extroversion — a personality trait Cain ties to ebullience, excitability, dominance, risk-taking, thick skin, boldness and a tendency toward quick thinking and thoughtless action — has actually, she argues, come to pose a real menace of late. The outsize reward-seeking tendencies of the hopelessly outer-directed helped bring us the bank meltdown of 2008 as well as disasters like Enron, she claims. With our economy now in ruins, Cain writes, it’s time to establish “a greater balance of power” between those who rush to speak and do and those who sit back and think. Introverts — who, according to Cain, can count among their many virtues the fact that “they’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame” — must learn to “embrace the power of quiet.” And extroverts should learn to sit down and shut up.
Introverts may be an odd audience for a book about power and leadership — concepts that necessarily involve the tiring and unappealing prospect of having power over, and leadership of, other people. Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at National Journal, tapped into the inherent humor of this contradiction some years ago, when he wrote a much-read meditation in The Atlantic on introversion. Rauch dreamed about the dawning of an “Introverts’ Rights movement,” the slogan of which might someday be “Please shush.” He got the tone just right: “Remember, someone you know, respect and interact with every day is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts.”
“Quiet,” a long and ploddingly earnest book, would have greatly benefited from some of this levity. But for Cain, the perils of introversion are no laughing matter. Her interest in writing on the subject, she relates, stemmed from her own agonizing difficulties with public speaking — an aversion to putting herself “out there,” which made Harvard Law School such a trial that she once threw up on the way to class. Her Cupertino “introverts” (who, I think, are probably better understood as sharing a cultural background rather than a near-universal personality trait) feel unappreciated, undervalued, resentful of their extroverted (and non-Asian) fellow students and colleagues who noisily “talk nonsense,” as a Taiwanese-born Cupertino woman puts it, and still get ahead. Her “extroverts” are, often enough, obnoxious fools: Stanford students stripping naked and running down a San Francisco street as part of a freshman “icebreaking” event; a charismatic self-help guru, raking in the dough as he flashes his too-white teeth and sells the secrets of his success to the constitutionally less exuberant. It would be easy to blame people like this for the decline of our civilization if they were, in fact, typical. But, of course, they aren’t.
Cain, who left a career in corporate law and consulting for a quieter life of writing at home with her family, is at her best on the subject of children. Her accounts of introverted kids misunderstood and mishandled by their parents should give pause, for she rightly notes that introversion in children (often incorrectly viewed as shyness) is in some ways threatening to the adults around them. Indeed, in an age when kids are increasingly herded into classroom “pods” for group work, Cain’s insights into the stresses of nonstop socializing for some children are welcome; her advice that parents should choose to view their introverted offspring’s social style with understanding rather than fear is well worth hearing.
However useful and astute her observations and advice regarding introverted kids, though, Cain’s book is about adults, and on this population, unfortunately, she’s a whole lot less convincing. For one thing, her definition of introversion — a temperamental inner-directedness first identified as a core personality trait by Carl Jung in 1921 — widens constantly; by the end of the book, it has expanded to include all who are “reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.” This widening of the definition makes introversion so broad a category, including, basically, all that is wise and good, that it’s largely meaningless, except as yet another vehicle for promoting self-esteem: “a very empowering lens through which to view your personality,” as Cain puts it.
Another problem with Cain’s argument is her assumption that most introverts are actually suffering in their self-esteem. This may be true in the sorts of environments — Harvard Business School, corporate boardrooms, executive suites — that she knows best and appears to spend most of her time thinking about. Had she spent more time in other sorts of places, among other types of people — in research laboratories, for example, or among economists rather than businessmen and -women — she would undoubtedly have discovered a world of introverts quite contented with who they are, and who feel that the world has been good to them.
The need to dress up any exploration of a social or psychological phenomenon in go-go language, making interesting observations or reflections the basis for something like a new social movement (“Introverts of the World, Unite!” as The Atlantic headlined a follow-up interview with Rauch), is particularly American, and can be as noisily grating as the compulsory extroversion Cain deplores. “Quiet” is full of gratuitous sloganeering: “Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.” “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.” Such writing offsets Cain’s serious research rather badly. A more quiet argument would have been much more effective.
Judith Warner is the author, most recently, of “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.”