I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking back in February, about a year after I’d reread Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, which may suggest that I find February to be the perfect time to read about people who focus more on their inner worlds than the shared outer world. As around here the outer world is usually frigid and buried under several feet of snow in February, this makes a certain sense. Now it’s November and I’m finally getting around to writing about it, as we get ready for more of that whole frigidity-and-snow thing.
Quiet comes across as a PBS special on introversion in print. I’ve never heard Susan Cain speak, so I don’t know what her voice sounds like. But as I read the book, what I “heard” was a documentary narrator’s voice: those slightly pedagogical tones of someone lecturing on a topic. (An interesting lecture, though. One that you want to hear, not something required for a class that you’re not interested in.) Cain herself is an introvert, but in keeping with the common perception of introverts, she’s not a big presence in her own book. She has a personal anecdote at the beginning, and sprinkles some shorter ones throughout the rest of the book, but for the most part, she tells other people’s stories. Some are historical, such as Dale Carnegie (an early promoter of what Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal), Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are modern: introverts trying to fit in at such extroverted institutions as Harvard Business School or Saddleback Church.
I’ve read books on introversion before, so much of what Cain writes about is familiar territory. Nine months later, it’s the stuff she wrote about that was new to me that I remember the best. Her first chapter is devoted to the development of the Extrovert Ideal, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight…prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt.” I hadn’t known that our society’s focus on personality is a modern phenomenon. Before the twentieth century, people were more interested in a person’s character, traits that run deeper and are seen as more permanent than the personality. Cain credits industrialization and population growth for this change. People can best judge the characters of those they know well. As the country grew and people moved into cities to work, the emphasis shifted to judging first impressions and the other surface traits of personality, and extroverted traits were seen as more likely to lead to success, creating the Extrovert Ideal. Most books on personality (any model, not just the MBTI) tend to deal with the present day and maybe a bit of history of the personality model itself, so I found this history of character vs. personality intriguing.
Another mostly new bit (to me) was the biology of introversion/extroversion. I’d heard some stuff about how introverted babies are more sensitive to stimuli than extroverted ones. Starting there, Cain creates an interesting chain of speculation: biological traits of extroversion, including high stimulation needs → risk-taking behavior → risky decisions → 2007 financial crisis. I lack the background to judge whether this is a solid hypothesis, but I certainly enjoyed reading it (and should probably keep it in mind if I ever reread Sam Harris’s Free Will, which suggests even more strongly that a lot of our apparently conscious decisions are made by unconscious parts of our brains).
Not all parts of Quiet were equally fascinating to me. I’m not in the corporate world, and a lot of Cain’s book focuses on that area. In the last part, where Cain turns to teaching readers how to best manage their introversion in an extroverted world, I mostly just nodded a bit and sped up my reading. But overall, it was wonderful reading a whole book on introversion (lovely introversion!). I have a third one lined up for sometime in the months ahead. Maybe February.