General psychology holds some of my fondest memories from my high school days, most prevalent being when my professor offered several personality tests to take for extra credit. Being the typical overachiever, I decided to take part, and I chose the Carl Jung personality test. I’ve always felt more comfortable sitting in a corner, away from the spotlight, and the farthest from the center of attention as I could be, so naturally I expected that to be reflected in my results. I was not disappointed. The test reported that I was undoubtedly an introvert.
This had no major impact on my life and I continued on as if nothing had ever happened. Susan Cain challenged this with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Quiet), and what I had thought to be a simple, non-defining, not-life-changing test result, turned out to not be so simple. In Quiet, Cain employs academic research and anecdotes to present a history of how Western culture has transformed from a culture based on character to a culture based on personality, where a so-called “extrovert ideal” is preferable, and introverts are viewed as inferior.
I chose Quiet because learning more about my own personality intrigued me, but it did much more than that; it shook my view of society, and helped me recognize my own oppression, as well as overcome it in a personal sense. Cain begins by defining the “extrovert ideal” as the omnipresent belief that the ideal person is gregarious and comfortable being the center of attention. This ideal prefers action over contemplation, risk-taking over heed-taking, and certainty over doubt. We must make quick decisions, even facing the risk of being wrong, as well as socialize well in groups and teams.
In today’s society, we like to believe we value individuality, yet all too often we only admire those who put themselves out there. Cain also identifies this debate of introverts vs. extroverts, and offers definitions of both. Introverts are drawn inward to the world of thought and feeling, instead of the world of people and activities. They focus on making meaning out of everything going on around them, while extroverts dive in head first with no extra thought. Where extroverts thrive on socialization, introverts are most relaxed while alone.
Having read about the work of Jung, these ideas were not new to me, yet the context of them through Cain’s eyes got the metaphorical wheels turning in my head about what it truly means to be an introvert in today’s society. In the first chapter, Cain includes an anecdote about Dale Carnegie and his journey to becoming an empowered speaker. This story brings to light the rise of the “extrovert ideal,” and society’s desire for bold and entertaining people. Before Carnegie’s time, Western culture was still a culture of character, where the ideal person was serious, disciplined, and honorable.
Back then, what counted was how you behaved in private, not necessarily your public impression. With the evolution of people like Carnegie around the twentieth century came the transition of Western culture to this culture of personality that we have today, where those same ideals seem to be undervalued. Even within my own family, I am consistently told I am too serious and not lighthearted enough. I care about how I conduct myself at all times, even in the privacy of my own home, and prefer to keep to myself over socializing.
Finding that my ideals conflict with this idea of a culture of personality, I felt like a bit of an outcast, and the whole idea of introvert oppression became a legitimate issue for me. In the second chapter, aptly named “the myth of charismatic leadership,” Cain elaborates on the “extrovert ideal” in respect to leadership, and how it ostracizes introverts. According to Cain, research shows that people who are quieter in nature do consistently better on intelligence tests, yet the world perceives people who tend to talk more as smarter.
We also see talkers as leaders, with the idea being that the more a person talks, the more others will direct their attention to them. What the world does not realize is that introverts are good leaders as well. As Cain states, introverts are “uniquely good at leading initiative-takers” because they are more inclined to implement suggestions and truly listen to the input of the entire group. One of the best examples of introvert leadership is introduced by Cain’s anecdote about Rosa Parks.
Many people know who Parks was, and know her because she simply said one word, “No. In her obituaries, those who knew her well remarked about her quiet nature and mild-mannered personality. This did not fit quite so well with the idea the world had of Parks, seeing as she was the face of the bus boycott, as well as other parts of the civil rights movement, but it goes to show that those who are soft spoken can also lead a fight. If we continue this assumption that only those that talk louder than others are the best leaders with the best ideas, then many good ideas within the minds of those more soft-spoken will be quashed.
Having been passed over many times for positions of leadership, this was particularly hard to swallow for me. I always assumed it was because someone else was simply better for the job than I was, yet now I realize that it was more likely because I had been too quiet in their eyes. Continuing on, Cain brings to light the benefits of working alone, as well as the topics of temperament, sensitivity, and communication.
Hans Eysenck, an influential psychologist, once observed that introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy. Cain uses this quote, as well as numerous research citations to back up the claim that working alone is highly beneficial compared to working in groups. Studies have shown that attempting to “multitask” increases error by up to 50%, and that performance gets worse as group size increases, with fewer and poorer ideas being generated as the number of people goes up. Studies have also shown that there is a correlation between introversion and temperament.
Psychologists often discuss the difference between temperament and personality, with temperament referring to heritable, biologically based behavioral and emotional patterns, and personality referring to the complex emotional and behavioral traits that arise from cultural interactions and personal experiences. Introversion and extroversion, like other temperament traits such as conscientiousness, are approximately 40 to 50% heritable, but personal experiences such as how we are raised can also have a large impact on how we behave as adults.
Each person is capable of stretching their personalities outside the bounds of their temperament, but only so much. This is so modeled when introverts stretch their boundary of comfort and are exposed to high levels of stimulation. Introverts often have high situational sensitivity, and the same noise and bustle that extroverts thrive on can drive an introvert insane. In order to function at their best, introverts and extroverts need very different levels of stimulation. Cain calls these optimal stimulation levels “sweet spots. ” One such example includes introverts functioning better than extroverts when they lack sleep.
This has been especially apparent to me during college. I can pull an all-nighter on a regular basis and still remain high functioning, while my highly extroverted best friend needs a minimum of eight hours before she can even say hello to me. In addition to this sleep trade-off, Cain points out that there are many things between introverts and extroverts that have a similar relationship. Extroverts statistically have more sexual partners that introverts, but they commit adultery and get divorced at a much higher rate. Extroverts may exercise more, but introverts suffer fewer accidents and traumatic injuries.
Extroverts thrive on large social networks of support, but they tend to commit more crimes. These trade-offs are just a few examples of just how misunderstood the relationship between introverts and extroverts is. Society has morphed into this culture of personality, creating the “extrovert ideal” and suppressing introverts. Simply because introverts can be more sensitive and soft spoken does not mean they are inferior people, in fact, statistically it is the opposite. Be that as it may, Cain is not trying to argue that introverts are inherently better than extroverts.
Cain states that we can thrive off of symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships. These relationships create an effective team, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to each member’s natural strengths and temperaments. I happen to agree wildly with her point of view. Through reading Quiet, I’ve come to understand more of why I am introverted, and that just because I am does not mean I am inferior, nor superior, but equal. As I mentioned before, my best friend is an extrovert, as is my fiance, and since they came into my life, I have never been happier.
Throughout Quiet, Cain does an incredible job of arguing the case for introverts. Her anecdotes are insightful and her remarks are witty, and my only complaint would be perhaps that there is too many stories. If I have taken away anything from Quiet, it is that in the debate of introverts vs. extroverts, there is no winner. The way to overcome the oppression of introverts is to educate society of just how essential introverts are. Introverts possess countless talents, not to mention numerous good ideas, and simply because they aren’t the loudest in the group doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard.
In Quiet, Cain opened my eyes to exactly what it means to be an introvert in an extroverted world, and through dedicated research as well as insightful anecdotes Cain taught me the power of being quiet, and how to wield that power to my advantage. As Cain stated in her conclusion paragraph, “love is essential, gregariousness is optional. ” Just because the world has adopted the “extrovert ideal” does not mean all introverts must conform to it. We as a society need to embrace each other, and use well the kind of power we have been granted.
Cain makes what is in my opinion one of the best analogies of the entire book in her onclusion, comparing introverts to Alice, saying that introverts are “offered keys to private gardens full of riches” and to have such a key would be akin to Alice falling down her rabbit hole. Just like Alice did not choose to go to Wonderland, introverts do not choose the power of quiet. We each must recognize our own powers and, like Alice, make the best out of our lives and every situation we fall into. Because of Cain’s brave and inspiring words, I have found my own power in the quiet of my soul, and any person who picks up Quiet, introvert or extrovert, will put it down wielding a new perspective on society as well as themselves.