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

Quiet by Susan Cain
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's review
Jul 12, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: library, book-group

If you've ever been called or thought of yourself as introverted, quiet, sensitive, shy, aloof, antisocial, ... the list goes on—then you owe it to yourself to read this book. It has flaws—it crams in an awful lot of material and doesn't always make interrelations clear—but it's the best book I've read yet for understanding how I'm different from most people and what I—and they—can do about it.

The validation starts early, on page 4: "Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man's world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are." Cain doesn't harp on the incongruity that women are a majority, unlike introverts, but this tossed-off analogy gave me a new perspective on feminism and male privilege, as well as the extra challenge of being a male with this "female" trait.

I was a very early reader of Elaine Aron's book The Highly Sensitive Person—I was at what must've been her second reading, in Palo Alto, and then took a seminar with her in SF—and that book really helped me understand myself at the time. But it also provided a too-attractive label for others to interact with rather than actually dealing with the real person. In Quiet, Cain talks a lot about Aron's ideas—HSP is another trait that overlaps with introversion etc.—but she starts from Jerome Kagan's original label of "high reactivity." Aron probably does too, but if I'd lost that term over the last 15 years. And it's useful in how it clarifies the relation between the individual and the world: it's not just the individual's susceptibility but the world's insistence, and it's not just feelings but any new sensation. "What we're really observing is a child's sensitivity to novelty in general, not just to people" (102). Knowing that I react easily to stimulation is very different from knowing that I am sensitive. (Other labels for the same trait include "negativity" and "inhibition," but I doubt I have to explain how deforming and disabling they are.)

Reading Quiet prompted a gillion other "duh!" moments. For instance, "An audience may be rousing, but it's also stressful" (90): How rarely do we hear that acknowledged? How often is it assumed all an artist wants is an audience? Or the fact (152) that HSPs enjoy small talk only after they've established a deep connection with someone; for us, it's not a relaxing way to ease into things, it's a frustrating waste of time playing a (difficult, deceptive, meaningless) social role. Or the very simple observation that "participation [in social exchange] places a very different set of demands on the brain than observing does" (237). In other words, I am not weird for not liking large-group discussions, where in addition to thinking of what I have to say I have to pay attention to what everyone else is saying at the same time and how they're reacting to what they hear etc etc; nor for not liking the phone, where I get no non-verbal cues whatsoever yet have to participate in real time.

Other new insights:
—p. 81: "Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone": This is a necessary corrective to the impression left by Malcolm Gladwell and his "10,000 hours" theory (which actually isn't his, apparently—another false impression he's happy to reap the benefit of). The simple fact is that Deliberate Practice cannot work in groups; only you can determine the challenge most compelling to you.
—p. 142: Low reactivity (as opposed to high reactivity/sensitivity/etc.) generally correlates with people whose skin remains cool. So the "cool" people really are! And it makes sense that I am both easily embarrassed (and I blush) and occasionally a "hot head" with anger about some minor circumstance. Embarrassment, by the way, is "a moral emotion" (144): it means you care about what other people think. Think about it: the most common opposite of "easily embarrassed" is probably "shameless," and that's definitely not a compliment.
—p. 212-5: The whole concept of low and high self-monitors, which is not the same as extroversion/introversion but overlaps as a tool for categorizing and stereotyping people. Low self-monitors like me, who don't pay attention to how we're seen by others (except when forced by an extreme, i.e. angering or embarrassing, situation), dislike charades, improv, arguing for a position not our own, adapting our behavior or opinions to situations or people. High self-monitors are better liars. Shameless liars?
—p. 231: "Introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with." In other words, extroverts take your resistance as a sign of engagement. This is how bullies think. Bullying, at its core, may just be an extreme or misguided extroversion—and that's why our extrovert-dominated society has trouble seeing and stopping it.

In later chapters, Cain discusses how those of us addressed by her book, whatever the label, can adapt to a world—or at least a dominant culture—that tends to see us as somehow or other defective. Play to your strengths, she says, work against your type for things that matter to you—but for once she acknowledges that "It's not always so easy, it turns out, to identify your core personal projects. And it can be especially tough for introverts, who have spent so much of their lives conforming to extroverted norms that by the time they choose a career, or a calling, it feels perfectly normal to ignore their own preferences" (217). Yes! For some of us, being told as a child "You can be anything you want!" has been more of a curse than an invitation.

Quiet is organized to be read, not for ongoing reference. It's essentially journalism, not a single focused argument, not a how-to guide, definitely not original scientific research. Reading it gave me lots of things to think and learn more about, but I'll go to other sources. Still, I've been reading about myself in various forms for decades and I've never felt as many moments of recognition.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Kartika (new) - added it

Kartika Fantastic review! Can't wait to read. SO an introvert it's not even funny.

message 2: by Sue (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sue Very good review of the book.. I just finished reading Quiet. At the end, Cain seems to confuse shyness with introversion in the chapter about how to deal with introverted children. the book is a compilation of many research studies and I question the validity of some studies. A lot of research in the book, but you always have to question it! Also, the author claims that half of the population is introverted, I question that--other sources say it is around 25 percent. Also, exercise--she claims that people dont like exercise, but I think many long distance runners, cyclists, etc. are introverts (as I am a distance exerciser, a real introvert).

RebecaH Great review!

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