Whenever a teacher would say, “Today, we’re working in groups,” I could feel the dread bubbling in my stomach. For the most part I’ve always preferred working alone, digesting the assignment and slowly making sense of my thoughts.
I also rarely raised my hand in class until I mulled over my response in my mind (over and over). And even then, there were many times I stayed quiet, hands at my sides.
Today, while I love being out and about, I prefer quieter places and I’m happy to stay home with a good book (or two). I love interacting with people, but I have my limits, especially in noisy environments. None of the people who know me would ever describe me as a risk-taker, fierce competitor, quick decision-maker or multitasker. And I’m a much better writer than I am a speaker.
In other words, I’m an introvert.
But I didn’t really realize this or appreciate it fully until I read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain is a former corporate attorney and an introvert.
And her book is an absolute must-read. It’s beautifully written and packed with sound – and often surprising – science and stories. If you’re an introvert, it provides you with a deeper understanding of yourself.
(By the way, introverts come in different shapes and sizes. As Cain notes in the book, “We can’t say that every introvert is a bookworm or every extrovert wears lampshades at parties any more than we can say that every woman is a natural consensus-builder and every man loves contact sports.”)
It’s also empowering. Many introverts, including myself, tend to feel ashamed or uncomfortable about our introverted ways. And it makes sense.
As Cain writes in her book, we currently live in a “Culture of Personality,” where extraversion is the ideal, a far departure from the past “Culture of Character,” which prized honor and discipline. “What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private,” she writes.
Today, we have to sell ourselves, whether we’re on a book tour or job interview. We have to work in groups, whether we’re in the classroom or the workplace. Society just seems to gear everything from how we learn to how we work toward extroverts. And by doing so, it’s missing out.
Quiet is a thought-provoking and fascinating work that reminds us of the dangers of solely listening to the loudest voices. It busts myths surrounding introversion and encourages us to be confident with our natural propensities.
But whether you’re an introvert or not, this book is an eye-opener for everyone. In short, I loved it, and I think you will, too.
I had the great pleasure of speaking to Cain about everything from common misconceptions about introverts to how parents can raise quiet kids to the presence of introverts throughout the animal kingdom.
1. In your book you note that introverts aren’t necessarily shy, which seems to be a common misconception. What are other common misconceptions about introverts?
The primary one is that introverts are asocial or antisocial. But introverts are differently social. What makes them an introvert is that they prefer less stimulating, lower-key and quieter environments. That’s why they’d rather be in the company of close friends, or share a glass of wine with one person. They might have fun at a big party, but after an hour or two, they’ll want to go home, because they’ve had enough stimulation for the night.
Another misconception is that introverts can’t be leaders. In my book, I profile a number of great leaders in the 20th century – Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi – who were introverts, and were successful not despite their personality but because of it. Wharton management professor Adam Grant has found that introverted leaders deliver better outcomes than extroverts when managing motivated workers. They let their employees run with their ideas whereas extroverts can feel more threatened and take control.
2. Why are some people introverts while others are extroverts? What contributes to these traits?
It’s a mix of nature and nurture, like everything else. There’s strong, sound research showing that there’s a particular temperament that predisposes people to introversion and shyness. It’s a temperament that’s more careful and sensitive and responds more actively to stimulation of all kinds.
The father of this research, Jerry Kagan, one of the great developmental psychologists, at first was on the nurture side. He was sure that people got their personalities based on circumstances and environment. In fact, he said that he’d been dragged kicking and screaming by his data that showed that nature played a great role.
Research has shown that some infants who are given sugar water to suck will suck on it more vigorously. These babies are more likely to become introverts because they respond to stimulation. These same babies who suck more on the sugar water are also more likely at 4 months old to thrash their legs when they’re exposed to a new toy; and at 2 years old to be vigilant and careful in a playgroup. This temperament profile stays with them into adulthood. Even if they grow up quite social and outgoing, they remain sensitive and careful underneath.
3. In your book you mentioned that introverts are more likely to reveal intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read. I’m definitely like this. Why do you think this is?
If you’re more sensitive to other people’s social cues and feel inhibited by them, well — the Internet removes a lot of social cues. So even though intellectually you know that thousands of people might see your writing, your body doesn’t experience or process it as an evaluative experience. So it’s liberating.
4. What did you find in your research that surprised you the most?
One thing that surprised me was all the research I found on leadership. I had sensed it intuitively, but I didn’t know that there was research out there.
Another thing that surprised me was that there are introverts and extroverts throughout the animal kingdom. It’s true all the way down to fruit flies. The fruit flies that tend to stay in one place are called sitters, and the flies that tend to explore more are called rovers. There’s a reason that they’ve evolved in this way. Each type has a different survival strategy.
Sitters survive better in some circumstances, while rovers survive better in others. It’s also true of humans. Introverts thrive better in one type of circumstance, and extroverts thrive better in another.
The key is to put yourself in the right environment. If you put an extrovert in a quiet environment, they’ll go out of their minds, and feel bored and restless. An introvert in a noisy environment will feel overwhelmed, overstimulated and evaluated, which will get in the way of true connection and productivity.
5. Because extroversion is so prized in our culture, parents may worry that there’s something wrong with their introverted kids. How can parents best raise quiet kids?
The main thing is to understand that introverts are just differently social. It’s helpful for parents not to assume that your child needs to be friends with everyone. It’s enough to have a few friends and play in quieter ways.
Introverted children also have a longer ramp-up to their comfort zone. They walk a longer bridge, so the best thing you can do is to keep them company on that longer bridge and give them encouragement.
I know that’s a bit abstract. Imagine you have a child who’s afraid of swimming. It might not work to throw them into a big noisy lesson with a bunch of kids. They’d probably do better with a private lesson when the pool is quieter. Then they can plunge into the pool. Basically, it’s a different way of learning. Kids need to know from their parents that this different way of learning is OK.
It also helps for introverted children to develop areas of passion and mastery and to build a social life around that.
6. Your book is incredibly successful and you’re doing many interviews and talks. How tough is it to do all this socializing and talking as an introvert?
There are two answers to this question. The first one has to do with the fear factor. Like many people, I found doing a radio show or going on TV scary in the beginning. But I’ve mostly gotten over that. It’s like desensitization training: If you spend enough time on the thing you fear, you get past it. It starts to get less frightening.
The other part is the stimulation piece. I definitely find it exhilarating to talk about a book that’s been my labor of love for so many years. I never even thought it’d get published, let alone have such a great reception. And it’s also exhausting. I try to pace myself. I figure out how many interviews I can do, and what breaks I need.
7. What do you want readers to take away from Quiet?
The No. 1 thing is for introverts to feel not just comfortable about who they are but to be proud, and to harness their strengths. Introverts often feel like something is wrong with them, as if introversion is a weakness. People feel a lot of guilt about preferring to be alone. But they shouldn’t.
We also need to rethink how we set up our major institutions and workplaces.