Jonathan Karmel's Reviews > Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet by Susan Cain
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Apr 05, 2012

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Read on April 05, 2012

There were a couple of things in this book that rang true to me. According to this book, introversion is a “fixed trait,” but introverts can benefit from “self-monitoring” and putting on an extroverted persona to achieve personal goals that are important. It’s also helpful for introverts to create “restorative niches,” periods of time when they can be alone and “recharge their batteries” by doing something of interest by themselves.

In relationships, an introvert may speak quietly and unemotionally during an argument, because of a psychological need to avoid conflict, and the person the introvert is arguing with may think the introvert is “checking out.” Likewise, an introvert may have trouble dealing with a partner who expresses anger and frustration in a highly emotional manner. It’s helpful to be aware of these different styles of communication.

Overall, however, as an introverted, Jewish, lawyer from the Hudson Valley who went to an Ivy League college, I was surprised that I mostly couldn’t relate to this book at all. Since this book has received a lot of good publicity, I thought it would contain a lot of insightful information about the way introverts experience life in a culture that idealizes extroversion. Instead, I found the book to be more of a memoir of one particular introvert - the author – whose experience I don’t think reflects that of introverts in general.

At the very end of the book, after the chapter titled “Conclusion,” there is a three page “note” on the words “introvert” and “extrovert,” in which the author explains that she’s not using the word in the way “contemporary personality psychologists” use the word. Referring to the “Big Five” personality traits, she states that her use of the word “introvert” includes not only introversion, but also “openness to experience,” “conscientiousness” and “neuroticism.” She (sort of) admits that there is no scientific basis for correlating introversion with these other three personality traits, but then she states that there’s a basis in literature for the generalization that introverted people also fall on the “sensitive/nervous” side of neuroticism, not on the “secure/confident side.” Then she makes reference to the ancient and completely discredited theory that there are four “temperaments,” and she suggests that this book was about people who are melancholic and phlegmatic, not sanguine and choleric.

Putting aside the fact that even under the four temperament theory, I don’t think it’s the case that melancholic people were considered more likely to be phlegmatic, I found that overall, the theories in this book were just based on the subjective experience of the author and had no scientific validity. Personally, I could relate more to a book about introverts who fall on the secure/confident side of neuroticism.

The four parts of the book create a coherent shell (Part 1: The Extrovert Ideal; Part 2: Your Biology, Your Self?; Part 3: Do All Cultures Have an Extrovert Ideal?; Part 4: How to Love, How to Work). But within that shell, I found the information to be poorly organized. The author has obviously read voluminously on the topic, but the book appeared to me to just be a compilation of her notes presented in somewhat of a haphazard manner.

What exactly is the author’s thesis? Our country idealizes Jack Welch more than Bill Gates, Ted Turner more than Warren Buffet, Franklin Roosevelt more than Abraham Lincoln – really, how so? Introversion has a biological basis (the amygdala of an introvert is different). On the other hand, Americans valued introversion more during the Age of Character, but began to value extroversion more during the Age of Personality that emerged in the 20th Century. “High-reactive” or “sensitive” types tend to be introverted. Yet Asian-Americans as a whole value introversion more than non-Asian-Americans according to this book. I know the titles of Parts 2 and 3 of the book are phrased as questions, but what are the authors answers to these questions? They seem to be all over the place.

In the chapter subtitled “Why Cool is Overrated,” the author describes her experience at a gathering for “highly sensitive people” in California. Although she enjoyed the experience, she concludes: “there is such a deficit of the social behavior we call ‘cool’ that I began thinking someone should be cracking jokes, stirring things up, handing out rum-and-Cokes. Shouldn’t they? . . . I’m glad for the ‘cool’ among us, and I miss them this weekend. I’m starting to speak so softly that I feel like I’m putting myself to sleep.” With empowered introverts like these, who needs marginalized introverts?

The suggestion that advocating for the power of introverts is somehow comparable to the civil rights struggles of introvert-Rosa Parks or introvert-supporter-of-Marion-Anderson-Eleanor Roosevelt is just silly. Introverts may be annoyed by the profusion of loud televisions at gyms, airports, doctor’s waiting rooms, elevators, etc., but I think it’s quite a stretch to suggest that introverts are being discriminated against. The book states that introverts get better grades in school and states repeatedly that one-third to one-half of all people are introverts. Is it really possible that we live in an “extroverted world”?

In my opinion, this book is just an amalgam of second-hand knowledge about stuff related to introversion (some of it only vaguely related, such as the habits of fruit flies). The author’s theories are supported more by cherry-picked anecdotes than scientific evidence. I think a book written by an actual psychologist – perhaps even an analytical psychologist – might have a more insightful theory about introversion.

There are many things this book could have discussed but did not. For example, if our educational system makes class participation part of a student’s grade, how should class participation be measured in a way that would not favor extroverts? How exactly can introverts use written communication via the internet to harness their power in ways that are not possible using only local, face-to-face communication? How can we re-design waiting areas to ensure that there is a quiet, well-lit space where people can read or do some other activity that requires concentration, without being bombarded by unwanted sensory stimuli?

Finally, I found this book to be very culturally specific to well-off people from industrialized countries. I doubt this book would have much relevance to most people. I guess the word “world” in the subtitle is just meant to refer to the “world” of the author.
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