Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Susan Cain

Book cover

My mom and sister were really into various “personality tests” when I was little. I remember taking a Myers-Briggs test and coming out an “I” (introvert), and feeling disappointed about that. I also distinctly remember taking another MBTI at some point later, and trying to answer the questions so that I would come out an “E.”

This anecdote illustrates the reason why Cain wrote this book (and, I must say, would probably have fit into the book’s style perfectly). Extraversion holds a favored position in modern American culture. A blogger who I sometimes read describes himself as a “recovering introvert.”

Over time, however, my experience of being an introvert (which I still am) has changed a lot. This is mostly due to two huge factors: I married a fellow introvert, and I work in an organization that is heavily introverted.

A few years ago, as a manager, I took a training class about developing your team, which made use of the MBTI. (I tried to answer authentically this time! and came out INFJ.) The facilitator mentioned that he had found that the proportion of introverts in my organization was reversed relative to the general American population: he said that about 70% of us were introverts, and 30% extraverts, whereas the reverse is true in general. This came as no surprise to me, and makes sense, given that it is a fairly technical organization. At any rate, this fact has heavily influenced my experience of being an introvert. I don’t have to worry about how to interact with extraverts for the most part, and don’t have to worry about whether I can rise in an organization that puts a premium on extraversion (as many others do). My favorite work environment so far was a group that had an open floor-plan. Cain says that this is not a good environment for introverts, but when it is filled with other introverts, I think it is! When we are in offices or high-walled cubicles, it is too easy for us to really withdraw. And without a significant admixture of extraverts (though there were a few), we could take down the walls.

I should get back to the book. As my own description above indicates, there are probably as many lived experiences of introversion as there are introverts. This makes it challenging to talk about the topic in a general sense. I think Cain does a reasonably good job of it, but she also explicitly allows herself to be somewhat fluid in her definitions. More than once, she clarifies that when she talks about “introversion,” she is really denoting a wide range of character traits with a family resemblance: shyness, studiousness, sensitivity, reflectiveness, and so on. This is understandable in a popular consumption book, but as a result, the book is kind of a buffet–since she has made the caveat that not all of the issues discussed apply to all introverts, it is easy to take from it what you like, and discard the rest. The result is a book that is kind of a feel-good experience for an introvert–you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people (should) like you! For this reason, I am not surprised that it became a bestseller. Even if we’re only 30% of the population, that’s still a pretty big audience! I’m curious what the experience would be of an extravert reading this book; come to that, I wonder what the proportion of extraverts in the readership is.

I don’t mean that to come off as a slight on Cain. I emphatically do not think that she wrote the book with the intention of pandering; I think that’s just an unintended effect of the broadness of the topic and the non-specificity of a book written for popular consumption. I do think that the book contains worthwhile material, and I learned something from it. Most interesting to me was Cain’s discussion of the research on nature vs. nurture in the formation of introversion. (There are highly predictive tests that scientists have performed on infants.) I will also say that I appreciated Cain’s balanced attitude throughout the book. It would be easy for a book about introversion, by a professed introvert, to come off as dismissive or denigrating of extraversion. And while her language can sometimes seem that way, she often takes pains to argue that both traits are valuable, and she is merely trying to rebalance a set of scales that is currently quite lopsided.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars