“The Most Important Book Published For a Decade.” Lynne Truss
This review really starts at the hairdressers about five years ago when I was mid-way through my teen years. While I waited for my turn I picked out a magazine that vaguely appealed to me and started reading. I stumbled across an article that caught my attention: a surprising gem among the perfect models, shouty fashion statements and advertisements.
I discovered something about myself: I am an introvert.
I had no idea there was a word to describe my quiet nature, one word that could sum up why I fear public speaking, why I don’t mind spending so much time alone, why socializing can make me tired, why I prefer to listen than talk. These were merely symptoms of my personality.
The article marked the beginnings of a fascination with personality which led me to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Cain’s extensive research unravels as a personal journey: a quest to expose the personality divide and how it affects us all. Cain’s holistic approach offering psychology, science, culture, evolution and historical perspectives is perhaps what makes her arguments and insights into personality both convincing and invaluable.
She introduces the book with an honest account of her own experiences as an introvert, something referenced throughout as small pockets of autobiographical confession. (I empathized most with her fears of public speaking.) She also draws on the lives of great public figures throughout history, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Steve Jobs and Al Gore, all of whom she declares introverts, and weaves a compelling narrative of how their introversion both affected and aided their social achievements. She also provides detailed interviews and case studies with the general public about how their personality affects them from their romantic to their social endeavors.
This book helped me to not only understand my personality, but to accept it and enjoy the benefits – the perks of being a wallflower. But it not only holds the secrets to understanding ourselves and where we fit into the introvert-extrovert spectrum but also help us to understand the people around us. Cain points out that the way personality is perceived is a product of the way we live. Cain argues that there was a significant change in the nineteenth century when American culture evolved from a culture of character to a culture of personality, which she argues ‘opened up a Pandora’s box which we would never quite recover’ from. She believes that the cultural preference for extroversion means introverts ‘are like women in a man’s world.’ Statistically speaking around half of the population identify with the introverted personality type.
Introverts ‘are like women in a man’s world.’
Cain works to dispel the negative assumptions surrounding introverts, arguing that you can be both quiet and strong. Loudness does not always mean strength. She draws on the inferiority complex which originated from the cultural shift in the West which declared extroversion the preferred personality type. She quotes from a woman that responded to her work: ‘By the time I was old enough to figure out that I was simply introverted, it was a part of my being, the assumption that there was something inherently wrong with me.’ Cain not only identifies the perceived social weaknesses of introversion but offers insight into qualities which benefit society, suggesting that introverts are great listeners and thinkers.
Cain also explores cultural differences, observing that while the Western world appears to applaud extroversion, Eastern countries such as China and Korea are predominantly introverted cultures. This means that what is deemed an admirable personality is relative to the culture you belong to. Where introverts can feel lacking in the West, extroverts can feel just as outcast in the East. She suggests extroversion is more prevalent in Europe and America due to their populations descending largely from migrants. Researchers believe the traits of world travelers were more likely to be extroverted and they were subsequently passed on down the generations.
Cain’s analysis of the rise of extroversion and the oppression of introversion extends to the workplace and schools. She argues that problems for introverts have trickled into the places that we spend a great deal of our time. Cain is a keen critic of the recent ‘Groupthink’ and open-plan learning, working and thinking strategies which have taken over the way we work. She argues that this climate is exclusive to extrovert thinking, and can prevent introverts from accessing and developing their highest levels of creativity – which Cain argues occurs when an introvert is alone.
It’s important to note that Cain does not oversimplify the complexities of personality which allows us to acquire knowledge of the personality traits without sacrificing our sense of individualism. The divide is presented as more of a spectrum which includes the ‘ambivert’ as a balance of the two major personality types: extrovert and introvert. Most importantly the book heralds ‘a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself’ wherever you fall on the spectrum.
This book is not just for anyone interested in personality, but for those who wish to develop more compassionate relationships with people based on understanding our personality differences and bridging the gaps through insight. As the reader you are free to ‘[t]ake what applies to you, and use the rest to improve your relationships with others.’ Cain acknowledges that the two personalities, when they work together, can achieve great things – as seen with Rosa Parks, a quiet woman who refused to give up a bus seat, and Martin Luther King, the great civil rights speaker.
The irony is that I can’t stop talking about this book.
Want to join in the conversation? You can follow Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet Revolution’ on Twitter via #RethinkQuiet
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