I wasn’t that old when George W. Bush was first elected President, but I remember one statement clearly from the media circus: “He’s a guy you’d like to have a beer with.” This seemed to me somewhat of a queer quality for somebody looking to be President; what about being gregarious and full of banter made somebody a better Commander-in-Chief? Being extroverted was good, and by convention being introverted was bad–as John Kerry realized in the following election. This fact of life did not bode well for me if I ever hoped to be President.
Today, at least in the United States, we live in a society that prizes talkative go-getters and (at best) mistrusts solitary thinkers. There’s even a saying to match: “It’s the quiet ones you need to look out for.” It doesn’t help that people like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters were characterized as being quiet, reclusive, and weird–all defining characteristics of true-blue introverts. Unfortunately, pushing introverts to the margins of society doesn’t do us any favors, as between a third and a half of us are introverts! Quiet is a sorely needed expose on why the “Extrovert Ideal” exists in Western cultures and how society misses out by marginalizing introverts. This is certainly not a book about talking down to the talkative, though–this is a book about mending bridges, about living authentically. In fact, Susan Cain set out to write Quiet to understand her own introverted nature.
Cain explores herself and reveals the reader to himself by going on an adventure of the mind. She visits a Tony Robbins motivational seminar and a weekend retreat for highly sensitive people to decode our current “Culture of Personality,” tracks down preeminent researchers to reconcile how genetics and environment interact to mold our disposition, and details how a dearth of introspection and quiet time can be harmful in every walk of life. Quiet holds some unexpected yet refreshing nuggets, like how at times being unlike yourself can be the best course of action and a unique post-Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-era chapter on how to interact with people of the opposite disposition. (Yes, there’s even a little relationship advice sprinkled in the mix without being preachy or trite.)
Cain’s writing is smooth, rarely missing a beat. Her quest to find out more about herself and about people on the “northern side of disposition” is funny, lucid, and authentic. She treats this tricky subject with tenderness and curiosity, just like an introvert would. Unfortunately, her writing style doesn’t translate well to describing some of the key science. For example, at one point Cain describes two main markers of disposition: reactivity and sensitivity. Each of these markers is well-defined in scientific literature, and Cain makes a good effort to differentiate them, but ultimately I couldn’t get a good grasp. Thankfully this issue does not rear its head too often, but it does distract from the strength of her prose.
Quiet certainly impresses by striking at the core of the introvert experience. At times I read on, jaw agape, thinking: “Unbelievable, this is me.” Most poignantly, Cain describes a beloved college professor, famous for his uproarious and inspiring theatre-cum-lectures, who admits that after these shows he must find a sacred space to recover or else he becomes “literally physically ill.” It’s not that he didn’t enjoy the experience, but he couldn’t take any more. Immediately I recalled times when I left friends’ houses after raucous fun to go on a long walk because I felt exhausted and sick. That’s a big part of Quiet: revealing to readers that their needs are normal, not weird.
Quiet is a book about understanding others. It is a book for fathers and daughters, brothers, bosses, and wives. If you are an introvert, it can even be a book for understanding yourself. Susan Cain’s inspirational work is a landmark in understanding how humans tick, and I sincerely hope that this book makes a huge impact in the collective psyche of society. Go buy it, borrow it, or sneak in an extra-long reading session in at your local bookstore (kidding) to see what I mean.
Joshua Yearsley is a graduate student in engineering whose research has made him a nemesis to wordy kludge in all its forms. He loves board games just a little too much and doesn’t get to play drums nearly as often as he’d like. To find out what makes him tick, head over to his blog Synonyms for Fun.