Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet - Susan CainQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
Broadway Paperbacks, 2013

Review copy from the publisher
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Quiet had been on my wish list for a long time. Ever since I first saw a review by Teresa on Shelf Love. There is something wonderful about reading about a book that you feel might be an exact fit for you as a person and at this particular moment in your life. When Quiet, a book about introversion, its delimitations, but also its strengths that society so often forgets, took the blogosphere by storm last year, I had been unemployed for a while. During that time, I learned a great deal about how uncomfortable I was with presenting myself to the world as something worth considering, as something noticeable even. Even during the studies for my masters degree, and obviously in the many many years before that, I had encountered the same old criticism again and again: you are knowledgeable, you reason well, you have a lot of qualifications, you just need to come out of your shell a little, give us a little more *oomph*, sparkle when you present yourself to others. When you are an introvert, like me, and a shy and insecure one at that, these words can be pretty damning. As much as I know what people want or expect from me, I might not be able to give it to them. And I know that I am likely to fail on the sparkling social part in strange settings, which makes the cycle go on and on and on.

I am sorry to burden you with that rather depressing story. But it is something I cannot avoid telling when talking about Quiet, because it directy motivated my choice to read this book. What Susan Cain does in her book is look at thepersistent idea that extraversion is better than introversion. She tackles just how prejudiced we collectively are to prefer extraversion over introversion, and how in our cultural expectations, we are short-selling ourselves by paying too little attention to the possibility of a more healthy balance between the two.

And so Cain gives us chapters on the rise of the extrovert ideal in America (this book is focused on US society, but most of what is described is prevalent in Dutch culture as well), the idea of charismatic leadership, the rise of group work over individual creativity, (biological) research into introversion and extraversion, introversion in the work place and at school, etcetera. Intermixed are stories about people discovering their introversion and how they deal with it, and some very practical tips on how to navigate an extravert world as an introvert.

What I appreciated most in Susan Cain’s Quiet was how much of my own thoughts, fears, feelings, but also character appreciation I found echoed in it. At long last, here was someone telling me that I am not strange, that in fact a lot more people are introvert than we might expect (although not always coupled with other things like shyness). That more people need their quiet time, have sleepless nights before presenting, or perhaps love presenting but are introverted in other situations. I also really liked how she continued to give advice, without only soothing us with understanding. There are pragmatic tips on how to organise your work days so as to avoid a “social overload” if you need quiet time. But there are also statements that make it clear that introversion in “a world that can’t stop talking” means you sometimes have to act more extrovert than you are. Tips to accept yourself for who you are so as to remain healthy. And to fight for the things that make you happiest, even if they require some extraversion sometimes (but that this is possible, because you know you are working towards what you like most). Perhaps this sounds like obvious advice, to some extent it is, but seeing it on page, in a very readable and sympathetic book, having it contextualised, does help.

Overall then, Quiet was exactly the kind of book I needed to read with the past year, and my current adjustment to working life, in mind. I know I say it more often, but I literally hugged this book close. And often. I underlined a lot of passages (something which I never do) as a form of personal therapy. There were daily situations that I could directly relate to what’s in there, and it was great to read about it, recognise it, and think of possible ways of dealing with it, or just feeling the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.

Part cultural history, part self-help, part social critique, and part psychological/biological study, Quiet is an interesting book for any one who considers him or herself an introvert. And perhaps also for those who are extraverts and want to understand more about their introvert fellow humans.

There were two things that I found less than perfect in Quiet though. One is a stylistic complaints. Cain starts (almost?) every chapter with an anecdote about a person she knew or heard about and provided that story as a setting to explore the chapter’s topic. I completely understand use of the device. How often have I not been advised to begin my essays with an anecdote? But after a few chapters, it became a little tiring. This might be because I rushed through this book much quicker than might have been anticipated by the author and editor, or it might just be a personal preference. Either way, it is not such a big deal.

What I do think a bigger deal is the essentialism, moreover the biological essentialism, that can often be encountered in this book. Despite the fact that Cain mentions from time to time that extraversion and introversion are no absolute categories (even briefly raising that some claim they do not work as categories), from time to time she definitely veered into the direction of approaching them as such. I wonder if part of my resistance towards this was caused by the fact that some chapters list so many positive aspects of introversion, and me not being used to seeing myself in solely positive terms, that my more pessimistic side automatically started to resist. As much as that might play a role, I think there is a deeper problem at play. When I think of something like introversion or extraversion, much like gender, I think of cultural categories, and as such I do not want to designate them as absolute. Cain, in her book, often explores the two in the form of biological/psychological research, in which the two categories seem to be almost taken for granted, and furthermore, are linked to genetic origins. Again, to be fair, Cain does raise questions about these ideas, and I feel she tried to do justice to both sides of the nature/nurture debate. However, to my taste, these questions were perhaps not raised often enough and she sometimes clearly seems to favour the nature side of the argument. And at these times the book made me feel a little uncomfortable.

After browsing other reviews, I found that Ana feels much the same way. She, however, does a much better job at explaining this discomfort, and I highly recommend reading her post about the book.

All in all, I found Quiet a very worthwhile read. It was extremely helpful to me. Not only to help me accept who I am, but also to highlight the things I can work on within the bounds of who I am. Cultural history and social critique is never wasted on me, and I very much enjoyed these parts of the books. The parts that explored the possible biological origins of introversion… not so much. Nevertheless, I am very glad that I finally read Quiet. And I’m pretty sure I’ll end up reading it again in the upcoming years, or perhaps just a chapter or two when I need a little encouragement after facing another networking event or public speaking adventure.

Other Opinions: Shelf LoveMedieval BookwormSophisticated DorkinessBibliophile by the SeaThe Indextrous ReaderSo Many BooksBook-a-Rama, Boston Bibliophile, Things Mean a LotDevourer of Books, 1330v,  Joy’s Book Blog, Take Me Away, That’s What She Read.
Did I miss your post about this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list. 

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17 responses to “Quiet by Susan Cain

  1. Thanks, being an introvert I shall look out for this book!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post – thank you! I think that a good book about introversion has been due for a long time, and fortunately I loved “Quiet”. For me, Cain was the perfect candidate to write about the subject, particularly as she’s faced the challenges of the extroverted work world.

    I actually appreciated Cain’s inclusion of anecdotes, although I understand your point about academic settings constantly discouraging it! In a similar way, I find it so difficult to read Hemingway’s novels – they simply remind me of examples of bad translations (so sad!)

    Best wishes.

  3. Reading this book made me realise I didn’t need to worry about people saying I was too quiet, and to remember that this whole idea is just one big bias. Yours isn’t a depressing story – it’s nice to be able to relate to when so many people make you feel you’re the odd one out. I found the way she discussed the positives and negatives a little discomforting, too, at times. And it is a drawback because you would be expecting an introvert to be happy to read about it – that it’s still discomforting in this context is the drawback.

  4. I had a very similar experience when completing my master’s degree! In fact, the oral examiners had a hard time believing I was the same person who completed the written work, and had suspicions that I had cheated! It was very bad! (Obviously they would have benefitted from reading this book; or that is, I would have benefitted from their reading it!)

    I know what you mean about the nature/nurture thing. There is so much that is still unknown that it doesn’t seem warranted to take a stance one way or the other, or worse, to imply that it all may be a done deal in any event!

  5. What a wonderful review, Iris! I am interested in this book, because I’m an introvert too (sometimes acting as an extravert). Your review makes clear to me that I should just read it for myself. Thanks.

  6. Glad you enjoyed it and nice write up too! I wonder if part of Cain’s essentialist tendencies don’t stem from her attempts to make introversion acceptable to the extroverts? I mean, when you say this is the way we are and there is nothing that can be done about it then it takes the steams out of the other side’s arguments. It’s a faulty argument on Cain’s part but I can certainly sympathize.

  7. I’m so glad to have found someone who agrees with me! And while I can certainly see Stefanie’s point it shouldn’t have to take something like that to make introversion acceptable, you know? It kind of puts me in mind of studies that try to identify a “gay gene” – sexual orientation shouldn’t need a gene to be accepted.

  8. I have this one on audio, and started to listen to it with my husband (we are both introverted people, but in different ways). It’s fascinating to ponder all the things that the author explains and it makes some excellent points about preferring to be a solitary person. I also agree that sometimes introverts have more trouble achieving the things they desire because of preconceived ideas that others form about them.

  9. I’m glad to hear that you liked this so much!

    Somewhat related to your point about essentialism, I’ve always been someone who enjoys and needs time alone, but I can think of times I could socialize more easily than I do now and when I was even eager to do so. So I think that introversion can ebb and flow, and our life circumstances, age, etc., can make it more or less of a factor. So even though we shouldn’t be pressured to change, sometimes circumstances will change us, so our degree of intro/extraversion need not be absolute, even if the general tendency is pretty stable.

  10. I am semi-curious about this but have always had the concern that I would use it to justify And it sounds a bit like this is a thing that would occur in the book. I feel like I already justify myself plenty in my introversion — sometimes it’s self-care but sometimes it’s just a bit lazy.

  11. Loved reading this. And am even more eager to read the book now. It’s been sort of enlightening seeing just how many book bloggers consider themselves introverts. It makes sense to me, as I see blogging as a wonderful fit of introversion in the way it allows you to sit back and take your time. But its still wonderful finding that you’re not as alone as you thought.

  12. I was one of those very intellectual children who was awkwardly and painfully shy. I swear I didn’t even talk to the male species, not even a hello, until I was in the later years of high school. I still suffer in new situations and high risk areas – such as job interviews so your story was so recognizable to me. I’ve avoided this book because reading some that hits this close to home can be terrifying. I need to get over it though!

  13. It’s been a consistent feedback that introvert relates to what Susan Cain said in this book, a bit part of me wants to own this book rather than reading the library copy I have now. Thanks for a wonderful review Iris.

  14. Argh lovely review iris and wonderful insight into yourself ,I have actually seen this was this weeks book offer in wh smiths here so may get it ,I am not realy an introvert I would just say a tad quiet ,all the best stu

  15. I’ve been dying to read this one. I, too, am in introvert. I need to bump it higher on my TBR list already! ;)

  16. “All in all, I found Quiet a very worthwhile read. It was extremely helpful to me. Not only to help me accept who I am, but also to highlight the things I can work on within the bounds of who I am.”

    This is pretty much exactly how I felt once I had read it. I don’t think I have ever been as accepting of my introversion as I am now.

    Lovely blog!

  17. One of my friends recommended this book to me and it’s on my wishlist. I think we’re a combination of both traits and like Teresa feels it ebbs and flows, certainly in my own case. I love socialising but afterwards I crave solitude and get all stressed if I’m not left alone. It’s cyclical.

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