Susan Cain – The Quiet Revolution
When you’re at a party, do you suddenly feel the desperate urge to escape somewhere quiet such as a toilet cubicle and just sit there? Until I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I thought it was just me.
I’d see other partygoers grow increasingly effervescent as the night wore on and wonder why I felt so compelled to go home. I put it down to perhaps there not being enough iron in my diet. But it’s not just me. It’s a trait shared by introverts the world over. We feel this way because our brains are sensitive to over-stimulation. I am genuinely astonished by this news. In fact, I read much of Susan Cain’s book shaking my head in wonder and thinking: “So that’s why I’m like that! It’s because I’m an introvert! Now it’s fine for me to turn down party invitations. I never have to go to another party again!”
Cain is an introvert. It has always been, she writes, “private occasions that make me feel connected to the joys and sorrows of the world, often in the form of communication with writers and musicians I’ll never meet in person”. She’s an introvert in a world that, she argues, excessively and misguidedly respects extroverts. We make them our bosses and our political leaders. We foolishly admire their self-help books, such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. Before the industrial revolution, she writes, American self-help books extolled character. Nowadays it’s personality. We introverts attempt to emulate extroverts, and the stress of not being “true to ourselves” can make us physically and mentally ill. One introvert Cain knew spent so much of his adult life trying to adhere to the extrovert ideal he ended up catching double pneumonia. This would have been avoided if he’d spent time recharging his batteries in toilet cubicles, and so on.
At the Harvard Business School, socialising is “an extreme sport”. Extroverts are more likely to get book deals and art exhibitions than their introverted counterparts. Cain had to persuade a publisher she could conquer her stage fright and promote herself at book festivals before they agreed to take her on. In America, extroverted parents have been known to send their introverted children to psychiatrists to have their introversion “treated” out of them. We think extroverts are great because they’re charismatic and chatty and self-assured, but in fact they’re comparatively narcissistic and unthoughtful and we’re committing a grave error structuring our society around their garrulous blah.
Most egregiously, we form our workplaces around the extrovert ideal. I like her nightmare descriptions of open-plan offices where group brainstorming sessions descend on the startled introvert like flash-storms. Group-think favours the dominant extrovert. The loudest, most socially confident and quickest on their feet win the day, whereas the contemplative and quietly well-informed tend not to get a word in. School classrooms are increasingly designed to reflect this flawed environment. Children sit in pods facing each other and are rewarded for being outgoing rather than original. “You Can’t Ask a Teacher for Help Unless Everyone in Your Group Has the Same Question” read a sign in one New York classroom she visited. All this even though Gandhi and Rosa Parks and Steve Wozniak and JK Rowling and Eleanor Roosevelt have described themselves as introverts, at their best when solitary.
Quiet is in many ways an important book – so persuasive and timely and heartfelt it should inevitably effect change in schools and offices. It’s also a genius idea to write a book that tells introverts – a vast proportion of the reading public – how awesome and undervalued we are. I’m thrilled to discover that some of the personality traits I had found shameful are actually indicators that I’m amazing. It’s a Female Eunuch for anxious nerds. I’m not surprised it shot straight to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.
Cain says we’re “especially empathic”. We think in an “unusually complex fashion”. We prefer discussing “values and morality” to small talk about the weather. We “desire peace”. We’re “modest”. The introvert child is an “orchid – who wilts easily”, is prone to “depression, anxiety and shyness, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent”.
Cain’s suggestions on how to redress the balance and make the world a bit more introvert-friendly are charmingly cautious. This is an essential book for anyone seeking solitude and the understanding behind that urge.
To listen to more of Cain’s insight, her Ted Talks lecture is one to watch!
Written by Jon Ronson of The Guardian, whose original review is available here.