Quiet was yet another one of those books lingering on my to-read list. I had watched Susan Cain’s TED talk at some point, and this book kept crossing my feeds, yet I never got around to it. I think, on some level, part of me was worried it would disappoint me. But when my bestie told me she had just read it, I knew the time had come. So, to the library I went!
I am an introvert. I’ve known this long before we took our first racist Myers-Briggs–esque test in high school. I don’t really enjoy being around other people, especially not groups of people, for a long period of time. They drain my battery; alone time recharges it. Sometimes people who don’t know me very well express surprise when they learn this: “but you’re a school teacher!” they exclaim, incredulous that someone so used to talking to an entire classroom of people could be introverted. Those people should read this book to understand how hard I’ve worked to live up to the Extrovert Ideal that Cain describes here.
No, actually, that’s a lie. I haven’t worked very hard at all. I turn it on for the work day, then I go home and crash. Even before the world came to a halt, I didn’t do much socializing outside of work, because I was too exhausted. I had the occasional meet-up with a friend, phone calls with my bestie in Montréal, and Sunday nights with my ride-or-die here in Thunder Bay. The idea of anything else was daunting. This has changed slightly since my transition—complicated, however, by the coincidence of that with everything shutting down, lol—and as things open up, I’m looking forward to having newfound … confidence (I hope) in my social interactions. Yet my transition hasn’t changed my introversion. Those interactions will still drain me.
However, I’m always cautious when talking about my introversion with people. As with many binaries, we like to construct false dichotomies instead of acknowledging that these attributes lie on a spectrum. Cain’s exploration of the introvert/extrovert spectrum is nuanced and very compelling to me. Unlike the self-help books that often focus on turning introverts into extroverts, or that insist introverts and extroverts naturally complement one another but are inherently too different (like men and women), Quiet explores multiple avenues of research related to this topic. Some of them have followed people from birth to try to untangle the roles of nature versus nurture in our introversion. Others examine the idea of “high sensitivity,” a trait apparently correlated with introverts but not exclusive to them. When I read the section where Cain focuses on this, I immediately thought of my bestie. Cain’s description of what it means to be highly-sensitive to stimulus fit me to a T, but it also fit her. “You’re one of those rare highly-sensitive extroverts,” I said as we discussed the book. She confirmed that I know her well: that’s exactly what she saw of herself when she read this book.
Cain’s association with the legal profession and Wall Street also moves her to examine how introverts fit into business. She includes several studies related to introversion as a leadership quality, with the interesting finding that introverts make good leaders when employees show lots of initiative, and they are not as successful as extroverted leaders when employees require more handholding or direction. However, she is quick not to boil these studies down to simplistic advice like the self-help books I denigrated above often do. Cain reminds us that psychological studies are tricky to evaluate. Several of the researchers she quotes in the book stress that our evolving understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture means we can’t boil traits like introversion or extroversion down to a set of genes or make pronouncements about how these characteristics will help us fare in society. Nevertheless, the connections that Cain makes across disciplines is compelling.
My main takeaway from this book comes in 2 parts. First, I felt some sadness. Much of Quiet is a chronicle of the grasp that the Extrovert Ideal has on North American culture. Cain laments how introverts feel out of place at Harvard Business School, and how Asian and Asian American students often struggle after graduation to advance in business positions that require you to be louder and flashier than your competitors rather than smarter or more attuned to fine details. After all, as the subtitle of this book indicates, Cain wants us to consider how the quality of being introverted is underappreciated in our society. Sometimes I think she goes too far in linking this thesis with aggrandizement of capitalism and the American Dream—one of her arguments is that most great inventors and CEOs, like Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates, are famously introverted, and that introversion naturally inclines one to leaps of creativity that one might not experience while collaborating in a bigger group. There are moments when she seems to approach a more radical reading of her thesis—i.e., that not only should we challenge the Extrovert Ideal but also recognize its routes in white supremacy—yet she never quite dares to go that far. So in that respect, this book was a little disappointing.
My second takeaway though, was simply that I felt seen. So much of what Cain describes in this book is me. If I were married to a Greg, I would feel like an Emily, not wanting dinner parties every weekend—I cringed when I heard Greg wanted that! Any time Cain described extroverted behaviours, I was like, “Yeah, that is not me.” I’m not over here trying to claim I’m the world’s most introverted introvert—believe me, I have my moments of being outgoing—but this book only reinforced where I am on that spectrum.
For introverts, I think this book will help in a similar way. It will solidify your understanding of yourself, and hopefully not make you feel so alone. For extroverts like my bestie, I hope you understand more about how extroverts and introverts relate and get along. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that I’m best friends with an extrovert—I calm her down and give her space to open up, and she pulls me along and encourages me to move out of my comfort zone, exactly like Cain highlights in one part of the book. (Interestingly, my ride-or-die is introverted like me.) For ambiverts or other people who aren’t sure where they would put themselves on this spectrum, I hope Quiet arms you with more knowledge about yourself and our society.