‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain – review
The Guardian, by Jon Ronson
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, 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 overstimulation. 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.
I finished Quiet a month ago and I can’t get it out of my head. It 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".
When I get to this part I think: Yes! We are like orchids! With good parenting we can become "exceedingly kind, conscientious and successful at the things that matter to us". Then I feel embarrassed that I derived pleasure from being compared to an orchid and I realise that sometimes Cain succumbs to the kind of narcissistic rhetoric she eschews in extroverts.
Still: her suggestions on how to redress the balance and make the world a bit more introvert-friendly are charmingly cautious. The way forward, she argues, is to create offices that have open-plan bits for the extroverts and nooks and crannies where the quiet people can be quiet. A bit like the Pixar offices. In this she reminds me of the similarly measured Jonathan Safran Foer, whose anti-meat lectures climax in a suggestion that we should try if possible to eat one or two vegetarian meals a week. Give me this kind of considered good sense over showy radical polemicism any day.
But sometimes her brilliant ideas aren’t written quite so brilliantly. Her book can be a bit of a slog, not always a page turner. I wish she’d spent a bit more time adventuring and a bit less time analysing and philosophising and citing vast armies of psychologists. I love feeling her pain when she journeys out of her comfort zone to "life coaching" conventions. But those adventures vanish as the book wears on, and it starts to drag a little, especially during the many chapters about how brain scans seem to demonstrate neurological differences between extroverts and introverts. I don’t know why popular psychology books feel so compelled these days to cite endless fMRI studies. As any neurologist will tell you, we still have very little idea about why certain bits of our brains light up under various circumstances.
And there’s a bigger nagging thought I couldn’t shake throughout the book. It began during the preface, in which Cain prints an "Are You an Introvert?" checklist. She lists 20 statements. The more we answer "true" the more introverted we are: "I often let calls go through to voice mail. I do my best work on my own. I don’t enjoy multitasking. I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status …" At the bottom of the quiz she mentions: "If you found yourself with a roughly equal number of true and false answers, then you may be an ambivert – yes, there really is such a word."
I do the test. I answer "true" to exactly half the questions. Even though I’m in many ways a textbook introvert (my crushing need for "restorative niches" such as toilet cubicles is eerie) I’m actually an ambivert. I do the test on my wife. She answers true to exactly half the questions too. We’re both ambiverts. Then I do the test on my son. I don’t get to the end because to every question – "I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities. I enjoy solitude …" – he replies: "Sometimes. It depends." So he’s also an ambivert.
In the Ronson household we’re 100% ambivert. We ambiverts don’t get another mention in the book. Even for a writer like Cain, who is mostly admirably unafraid of grey areas, we ambiverts are too grey. Her thesis – built on the assumption that almost everyone in the world can be squeezed into one of two boxes – may topple if it turns out that loads of us are essentially ambiverts. I suspect there are a lot of ambiverts out there.