Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Be Quiet

When Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking was released several months ago to much hype in various articles and in author Susan Cain's TED talk, I immediately knew that it was a book I'd be interested in reading. I have a very distinct memory of the day in grade school, probably during a vocabulary lesson, when we learned the meanings of extrovert and introvert. The teacher asked for a show of hands for the following: Who considered themselves an extrovert? Who was an introvert? And who thought they were a combination of both?

Of the entire class of about 25-30 kids, not a single person raised their hand for introvert. Not even me, a girl whose parents had by then gotten used to hearing the refrain "she's a perfect student, but needs to speak up more in class" during their parent-teacher conferences. Although I certainly knew I was an introvert, I raised my hand for the "combination of both" category. Looking back, it makes sense. What introvert, especially an introverted kid, would want to raise their hand to be singled out in front of a crowd? And since I now know that roughly half the population considers themselves to be introverted, I think it's safe to say that at least a few of my classmates were lying along with me that day. Although we were just learning the meaning of those words, we already had the sense that being talkative, loud, and boisterous were desirable qualities while being quiet, thoughtful, and reserved were traits to be covered up or corrected. It's this societal preference for extroversion that Cain uses as the basis for her studies in Quiet.

Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, writes about how extroversion emerged as the prized personality trait in Western culture. She discussed the various way that our society orients itself around extroverts, from school desks that are clustered into pod-like groupings to workplaces that have adopted open floor plans and endless collective brainstorming sessions. On a more social level, Cain addresses, and debunks, the stereotype that introverts are backward hermits who like to be locked away by themselves all the time. She instead described common types situations that introverts prefer: meaningful conversations over small talk; dinner with one or two people over twenty; meeting a friend at a favorite coffee shop over a crowded, unfamiliar bar.

Through the experts she interviews and the research findings she cites, Cain goes one step further to show how introversion, rather than being a chosen behavior tendency, is actually something innate to a individual's personality that develops out of some combination of nature and nurture. One of the most interesting studies she discusses is one in which infants were exposed to jarring, unfamiliar things, like a loud whistle or brightly flashing lights. Some of the babies stayed fairly calm, while others reacted by crying and flailing their limbs. Researchers later followed up with these babies to see which had grown introverted children and which were extroverted. They discovered that, contrary to what you might assume, those who became introverts were the ones who had been more upset by the unfamiliar stimuli as babies. This is because introverts are inherently more comfortable with things that are familiar, expected, and controlled, and tend to be more easily upset by the unknown or unexpected than extroverts are. Though adult introverts hopefully no longer cry and thrash their arms around, their dislike of the unexpected manifests itself in other ways, like over-preparing for a work meeting rather than speaking off the cuff or feeling a little bit anxious when going to a new restaurant to meet a friend. Somewhat ironically, introverts, who are naturally more deeply observant than extroverts, are better at taking in and process details in crazy or hectic situations. We'd just rather not be processing and observing them at the same time as we're called on to react to them.

There are many other interesting points made and examples given in this book, but I don't want to risk watering them down even more than I already have with my ramblings. The only fault I can find with Quiet is that it may be a book that preaches to the choir. Although Cain continually returns to the idea that both introverts and extroverts have qualities that can benefit each other, it's clearly a book written by an introvert for introverts. And even though it's refreshing for us quieter types to get some long overdue personality validation, I'd be very curious to hear an extrovert's take on the book.

So, are you an introvert or an extrovert? Or did I just ask for a virtual show of hands?

1 comment:

  1. I'm definitely an introvert and have been since I was born. I still get teased and chided for it in my family and I have a hard time not feeling ashamed. I feel I constantly have to defend my innate personality!
    Even if extroverts care nothing for this book, it might help to make some of us introverts feel like there is nothing wrong with us!



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