Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012)
I waited a long time for my name to percolate to the top of our library's waiting list for Quiet. In another example of God's amazing sense of humor, I was able to pick up the book on my way home from dropping the Daleys at the airport. Returning to a house no longer ringing with the sound of grandchildren was at the time altogether too much quiet for me. Being able to bury myself in the book did help assuage the sense of loss, however.
I'm tempted to say that Quiet is by far the best of all the books I've read on introversion, though that may only be because it's the third, and I have the advantage of having read others. Introverts in the Church made me cry because it was the first, revealing to me the value of character traits I've been pressured to suppress all my life, but it is not particularly well written, and is a bit strident for sharing with extroverts.
Although I found the second book overly psycho-therapeutic, I learned from The Introvert Advantage some of the physical differences between the brains of introverts and those of extroverts, and some advice for understanding (and helping) both introverted and extroverted children. Quiet takes that ball and runs a lot further with it.
It helps that the book is well written, enabling me to concentrate on the content without being distracted by the form. The author is also more even-toned in her approach, highlighting the contributions of introverts, yes, but at the same time emphasizing the value of both temperament types. She's much easier on extroverts than some writers whose scars from growing up in an extrovert-dominated world are more visible. Nonetheless, I can't unequivocally recommend the book for all extroverts. If you're an insecure extrovert looking for affirmation of your own temperament, you won't find much help here. If you think the problem with the world is that most people are not extroverted enough, Cain is not singing your song. But if you yearn to understand, appreciate, and support the introverts in your life—especially if you have an introverted spouse or child who frustrates or puzzles you, or if you're an employer desiring to create the most productive work environment for employees of diverse temperaments, don't miss Quiet.
Cain deliberately broadens her use of the terms "extrovert" and "introvert" from the popular consideration of whether one is renewed by crowds or solitude.
This book is about introversion as seen from a cultural point of view. Its primary concern is the age-old dichotomy between the "man of action" and the "man of contemplation," and how we could improve the world if only there were a greater balance of power between the two types.
Actually, her brush is broader still, which to my mind makes it worthwhile reading "yet another book on introverts": She covers other, related personality traits, along with how they interact with intro- and extro-version. This could profitably have been seven books rather than one. Which is a bit frustrating, I'll admit, as it seems she is just getting started on an interesting subject when she veers in another direction.
Quiet is a popular book, which means I had only two-thirds the normal time to keep this library copy, with no hope of renewal, and it was due yesterday. So for the remainder of this post you'll get a somewhat random collection of a few of the points that caught my eye.
The 20th century was not a good time for introverted children. Reading about the development of the Cult of Personality and the psychological concept of the Inferiority Complex helps explain why I provoked comments in my father's journals (which I read many years later) on the order of, "I sure wish Linda were more sociable." Never mind that my parents were as introverted as I am—they wanted better for their children.
[C]hild guidance experts of the 1920's set about helping children to develop winning personalities. Until then, these professionals had worried mainly about sexually precocious girls and delinquent boys, but now psychologists, social workers, and doctors focused on the everyday child with the "maladjusted personality" ... The experts advised parents to socialize their children well and schools to change their emphasis from book-learning to "assisting and guiding the developing personality." Educators took up this mantle enthusiastically. ... Well-meaning parents of the midcentury agreed that quiet was unacceptable and gregariousness ideal for both girls and boys. Some discouraged their children from solitary and serious hobbies, like classical music, that could make them unpopular. They sent their kids to school at increasingly young ages, where the main assignment was learning to socialize. Introverted children were often singled out as problem cases.
Maybe I'd have been better off growing up in Taiwan, as in this quote from a present-day American high school student whose parents are from that country.
It's inbred in us to be more quiet. When I was a kid and would go to my parents' friends' house and didn't want to talk, I would bring a book. It was like this shield, and they would be like, "She's so studious!" And that was praise.
During the New York City transit strike of 2005, Craigslist was the go-to place for ride-share listings. "Yet another crisis, and Craigslist commands the community," wrote one blogger. "How come Craig organically can touch lives on so many personal levels—and Craig's users can touch each other's lives on so many levels?" Here's one answer: social media has made new forms of leadership possible for scores of people who don't fit the [exceedingly extroverted] Harvard Business School mold.
Studies have shown that ... introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read, to say that they can express the "real me" online, and to spend more time in certain kinds of online discussions. They welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.
The New Groupthink did not arise at one precise moment. Cooperative learning, corporate teamwork, and open office plans emerged at different times and for different reasons. But the mighty force that pulled these trends together was the rise of the World Wide Web, which lent both cool and gravitas to the idea of collaboration. On the Internet, wondrous creations were produced via shared brainpower (e.g. Linux, Wikipedia, MoveOn.org]. These collective productions, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing. Collaboration became a sacred concept—the key multiplier for success. ... But then we took things a step further than the facts called for. We came to value transparency and to knock down walls—not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office. ... The Internet's role in promoting face-to-face group work is especially ironic because the early Web was a medium that enabled bands of often introverted individualists ... to come together to subvert and transcend the usual ways of problem-solving. ... [T]he earliest open-source creators didn't share office space—often they didn't even live in the same country. ... If you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it's doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred.
[In the 1950's, psychologist] Solomon Asch conducted a series of now-famous experiments on the dangers of group influence. ... His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly. But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer ... a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group's wrong answer to at least one question.
[A recent, updated version of the experiment by neuroscientist Gregory Berns, which included brain scans, reveals worse news: the scans indicated that the participants' perceptions had actually been altered by the group.]
If the group thinks the answer is A, you're much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It's not that you're saying consciously, "Hmm, I'm not sure, but they all think the answer's A, so I'll go with that." Nor are you saying, "I want them to like me, so I'll just pretend that the answer's A." No, you are doing something much more unexpected—and dangerous. Most of [the participants] reported having gone along with the group because "they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer." They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.
[Participants did not always conform. But when they chose the correct answer despite pressure to do otherwise, their brains showed "heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with upsetting emotions such as the fear of rejection."]
Berns refers to this as "the pain of independence," and it has serious implications. Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.
In another famous study, introverts and extroverts were asked to play a challenging word game in which they had to learn, through trial and error, the governing principle of the game. While playing, they wore headphones that emitted random bursts of noise. They were asked to adjust the volume of their headsets up or down to the level that was "just right." On average, the extroverts chose a noise level of 72 decibels, while the introverts selected only 55 decebels. When working at the volume that they had selected—loud for the extroverts, quiet for the introverts—the two types were about equally aroused (as measured by their heart rates and other indicatores). They also played equally well.
When the introverts were asked to work at the noise level preferred by the extroverts, and vice versa, everything changed. Not only were the introverts over-aroused by the loud noise, but they also underperformed—taking an average of 9.1 trials rather than 5.8 to learn the game. The opposite was true for the extroverts—they were under-aroused (and possibly bored) by the quieter conditions, and took an average of 7.3 trials, compared with the 5.4 they'd averaged under noisier conditions.
The author does not mention the overall superiority of the extroverts' performances, but I'd hazard that "random bursts of noise" at any volume level would be more difficult for introverts to handle.
Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favorable to your own personality. ... You can organize your life in terms of what personality psychologists call "optimal levels of arousal" and what I call "sweet spots," and by doing so feel more energetic and alive than before.
Imagine that you're lying contentedly in a hammock reading a great novel. This is a sweet spot. But after half an hour you realize that you've read the same sentence five times; now you're understimulated. So you call a friend and go out for brunch—in other words, you ratchet up your stimulation level—and as you laugh and gossip over blueberry pancakes, you're back, thank goodness, inside your sweet spot. But this agreeable states lasts only until your friend—an extrovert who needs much more stimulation than you do—persuades you to accompany her to a block party, where you're now confronted by loud music and a sea of strangers.
Your friend's neighbors seem affable enough, but you feel pressured to make small talk above the din of music. Now—bang just like that—you've fallen out of your sweet spot, except this time you're overstimulated. And you'll probably feel that way until you pair off with someone on the periphery of the party for an in-depth conversation, or bow out altogether and return to your novel.
Imagine how much better you'll be at this sweet-spot game once you're aware of playing it. ... People who are aware of their sweet spots ... can hunt for homes based on the temperaments of their family members—with cozy window seats and other nooks and crannies for the introverts, and large, open living-dining spaces for the extroverts. ... [I]ntroverts function better than extroverts when sleep deprived, which is a cortically de-arousing condition. ... Drowsy extroverts behind the wheel should be especially careful—at least until they increase their arousal levels by chugging coffee or cranking up the radio. Conversely, introverts driving in loud, overly arousing traffic noise should work to stay focussed, since the noise may impair their thinking. [This was an aha! moment for me. I cannot stand to have the radio on when I'm in a stressful driving situation. Because I always defer to the driver when it comes to radio station and volume, I've more than once been exceedingly stressed by trying to navigate on the fly, through an unfamiliar city, with my brain on half power.]
One personality trait that often, though not always, combines with introversion, is "high reactivity." It is inborn, though as with all such traits is sensitive to environmental factors, too. And it complicates a neat division of the world into introverts and extroverts.
Highly sensitive people tend to be keen observers who look before they leap. They arrange their lives in ways that limit surprises. They're often sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, pain, coffee. They have difficulty when being observed (at work, say, or performing at a music recital). ... The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation. ... They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive.... They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions—sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. ... They tend to notice subtleties that others miss—another person's shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly. ... [S]ometimes they're highly empathetic. It's as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people's emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. ... They avoid violent movie and TV shows; they're acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. ... [But] when they're overwhelmed by negative emotions like shame or anxiety ... they can be positively oblivious of other people's needs.
Introverts are not smarter than extroverts. According to IQ scores, the two types are equally intelligent. And on many kinds of tasks, particularly those performed under time or social pressure or involving multitasking, extroverts do better. Extroverts are better than introvertts at handling information overload. Introverts' reflectiveness uses up a lot of cognitive capacity. ... Extroverts appear to allocate most of their cognitive capacity to the goal at hand, while introverts use up capacity by monitoring how the task is going. ... Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately.
Then there's "buzz." Some people are more "reward-sensitive" than others; it appears to have something to do with the brain's dopamine pathways.
[Buzz] fires us up to work and play hard. It gives us the courage to take chances. Buzz also gets us to do things that would otherwise seem too difficult, like giving speeches. Imagine you work hard to prepare a talk on a subject you care about. You get your message across, and when you finish the audience rises to its feet, its clapping sustained and sincere. One person might leave the room feeling, "I'm glad I got my message across, but I'm also happy it's over; now I can get back to the rest of my life." Another person, more sensitive to buzz, might walk away feeling, "What a trip! Did you hear that applause? Did you see the expression on their faces when I made that life-changing point? This is great!"
[But buzz has its downside.]
Financial history is full of examples of players accelerating when they should be braking. Behavioral economists have long observed that executives buying companies can get so excited about beating out their competitors that the ignore signs that they're overpaying. This happens so frequently that it has a name: "deal fever," followed by "the winner's curse." The AOL-Time Warner merger, which wiped out $200 billion of Time-Warner shareholder value, is a classic example. There were plenty of warnings that AOL's stock, which was the currency for the merger, was wildly overvalued, yet Time Warner's directors approved the deal unanimously. "I did it with as much or more excitement and enthusiasm as I did when I first made love some forty-two years ago," exclaimed Ted Turner, one of those directors and the largest individual shareholder in the company.
Indeed, although the causes of our recent financial troubles are many and diverse, Cain makes a good case for casting significant blame on a personality imbalance in our financial institutions. Their culture had for years rewarded the "extrovert" (in Cain's more broad sense, which includes the reward-sensitive risk-takers with a goal-oriented, quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving). These are the people who made things happen, who chose the high-risk, high-reward approach to investing. All businesses need people like that. But what they also need is balance: other people who will notice the warning signs, sound the alarms, and put on the brakes. And this few of the major players had. Enthusiastic, aggressive deal-closers were the ones who made the big money and received the promotions. The more cautious were passed over, or learned to squelch their natural cautiousness and act like those who were reaping the rewards, making even riskier decisions than those they were attempting to imitate. "And great was the fall of it."
If you're a buzz-prone extrovert, then you're lucky to enjoy lots of invigorating emotions. Make the most of them: build things, inspire others, think big. Start a company, launch a website, build an elaborate tree house for your kids. But also know that you're operating with an Achilles' heel that you must learn to protect. ... Teach yourself to pause and reflect when warning signs appear that things aren't working out as you'd hoped. Learn from your mistakes. Seek out counterparts (from spouses to friends to business partners) who can help rein you in and compensate for your blind spots. And when it comes time to invest, or to do anything that involves a sane balance of risk and reward, keep yourself in check. One good way to do this is to make sure that you're not surrounding yourself with images of rewards at the crucial moment of decision. [Studies] have found that men who are shown erotic pictures just before they gamble take more risks than those shown neutral images like desks and chairs. This is because anticipating rewards—any rewards, whether or not related to the subject at hand—excites our dopamine-driven reward networks and makes us act more rashly. (This may be the single best argument yet for banning pornography from workplaces.)
So, what drives those who are less reward-sensitive? One possibility is the concept of "flow" (available to extroverts as well).
The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings. ... If you're an introvert, find your flow by using your gifts. You have the power of persistence, the tenacity to solve complex problems, and the clear-sightedness to avoid pitfalls that trip others up. ... [Y]our biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you're focussed on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless. So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don't let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don't force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way. It's up to you to use that independence to good effect.
The chapter entitled "When Should You Act More Extroverted than You Really Are?" introduces us to Professor Brian Little, a lecturer and former Harvard professor whose enthusiastic and engaging talks would apparently belie his decidedly introverted nature. You can find samples of his lectures online, although the ones I've found on YouTube, and even on his own blog, are frustratingly incomplete. According to Little's Free-Trait Theory, "we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of "core personal projects." Seems obvious to me, but it must not be, since it's a new field of psychology.... The story of his annual lectures at a military college near Montreal is too long to quote in full, but it's too funny to leave out altogether. His first speech was a resounding success, but afterwards he was horrified when the was invited to join the top brass for lunch.
Little had to deliver another lecture that afternoon, and he knew that making small talk for an hour and a half would wipe him out. He needed to recharge for his afternoon performance. Thinking quickly, he announced that he had a passion for ship design and asked his hosts if he might instead take the opportunity of his visit to admire the boats passing by on the Richelieu River.
This dodge worked for years—until the college moved its campus away from the water.
Deprived of his cover story, Professor Little resorted to the only escape hatch he could find—the men's room. After each lecture, he would race to the restroom and hide inside a stall. One time, a military man spotted Little's shoes under the door and began a hearty conversation, so Little took to keeping his feet propped up on the bathroom walls, where they would be hidden from view. (Taking shelter in bathrooms is a surprisingly common phenomenon, as you probably know if you're an introvert.) [Nursing mothers were finally able to come out of the restrooms; perhaps the introverts' day will come.]
Many introverts, like Professor Little, have learned to put on a persona of "pseudo-extroversion" in order to accomplish something important to them. Such motivation is what enabled my very introverted parents to take leadership roles in the PTA when I was in school. The critical difference between this and a harmful self-negation is attitude: one person will tell himself, Ï'm doing this to advance work I care about deeply, and when the work is done I'll settle back into my true self," where the other is thinking, "The route to success is to be the sort of person I am not." One "acts out of character for the sake of worthy tasks that temporarily require a different orientation," while the other "believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with who she is."
Perhaps the most important chapter is "The Communication Gap: How to Talk to Members of the Opposite Type." This goes 'way beyond introversion and extroversion to explain how deeply divergent personalities can lead to disastrous communication problems—and how they might be avoided. Expanding on this chapter should be Susan Cain's next book.
In one study, introverts and extroverts were asked to play either a competitive or a cooperative game.
The introverts assigned to the cooperative game rated all players—not just their competitors, but also their teammates—more positively than the introverts who played the competitive game. The extroverts did just the opposite: they rated all players more positively when they played the competitive version of the game. These findings suggest something very important: introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with.
In another study, introverted stroke patients worked harder when given gentle, positive reinforcement, such as "Very nice, keep up the good work," but extroverts were more inspired by more aggressive talk, such as "You can do more than that!"
Much of the chapter is the story of Greg and Emily, a couple with extremely different approaches to conflict.
When Emily lowers her voice and flattens her affect during fights with Greg, she thinks she's being respectful by taking the trouble not to let her negative emotions show. But Greg thinks she's checking out or, worse, that she doesn't give a damn. Similarly, when Greg lets his anger fly, he assumes that Emily feels, as he does, that this is a healthy and honest expression of their deeply committed relationship. But to Emily, it's as if Greg has suddenly turned on her.
John, an introvert I interviewed who has a great relationship with his fiery wife, describes how he learned to [remind himself that she's not really as aggressive as she seems]:
When Jennifer's after me about something, she's really after me. If I went to bed without tidying the kitchen, the next morning she'll shout at me, "This kitchen is filthy!" I come in and look around the kitchen. There are three or four cups out; it's not filthy. But the drama with which she imbues such moments is natural to her. That's her way of saying, Gee, when you get a chance I'd appreciate it if you could just tidy up the kitchen a little more. If she did say it that way to me, I would say, I'd be happy to, and I'm sorry that I didn't do it sooner. But because she comes at me with that two-hundred-mile-per-hour freight train energy, I want to bridle and say, Too bad. The reaons I don't is because we've been married for twenty-five years, and I've come to understand that Jennifer didn't put me in a life-threatening situation when she spoke that way.
So what's John's secret for relating to his forceful wife? He lets her know that her words are unacceptable, but he also tries to listen to their meaning.
The most astonishing revelation to me was that the very definitions of "rude" and "caring" can differ so much between individuals living in the same era and place. It is one thing to realize, for example, that there are differences in negotiation style between the Chinese and the Israelis (explained in the book), and quite another to accept that when someone you love is slapping you in the face he really believes he's expressing loving concern, and when you think you're being polite he interprets that as indifference.
And yet, it brings to mind my own relationship with my mother-in-law. It was cordial all along, but we only became friends near the end of her life, when I finally took a stand and stood up to her. Could it be that what I considered respectful behavior she saw as rejection?
Truly only love and the grace of God can save us bizarre mortals!