Remember the kid at school who seemed to have nothing to say even as the classroom was an awful din, and who performed consistently poorly in all manner of interactive activities? Or the chap in office who would always cop out at the last minute from a noisy gathering of colleagues? Now, imgine the kid being pushed blindly to interact, or the co-worker hauling himself up to socialise for fear of being labelled either “boring” or “too full of himself”. How would he feel?
You would know if you were an introvert. And it’s all right to be one, believes Susan Cain.
Her belief is not unfounded. Packed with research, historical references, case studies, numerous interviews and careful observation, Ms Cain’s first book, Quiet, could break new ground on the way the world perceives, and engages with, those on the quieter side.
Ms Cain, a Princeton graduate who went to Harvard Law School and practised corporate law for several years before she became a writer, admits being an introvert herself. The admirable clarity with which she offers revealing insights into the quieter aspects of personality could have come only from a bona fide introvert.
So who would qualify as an introvert? Early definitions could be attributed to psychologist Carl Jung’s works: “introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling … extroverts to the external life of people and activities.” Today, however, the distinction between the two has much to do with the reaction to outside stimulation. As Ms Cain puts it, “Introverts feel ‘just right’ with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people….” The theme of stimulation answers several questions: why aren’t some people always pleased to attend a party; why do some prefer one-on-one conversations to group interactions; why do some spend time alone to recharge while others could feed off social interaction?
Due care is taken to avoid theoretical overkill. So you’d find Ms Cain in the company of a gyrating, clapping audience who’ve paid as much as $895 to $2,500 to attend the self-help king Tony Robbins’ entry-level seminar — an extroversion-on-steroids event. Not many pages later, she could be seen in California at a weekend gathering of “highly sensitive people”.
Even as Ms Cain walks you through the intricate labyrinth of human psyche, she busts many myths — and convincingly so. It’s complex territory, one that challenges the unquestioned acceptance of several cultural and societal norms: gregariousness, leadership, exuberance, multitasking, and so on.
The world, according to Ms Cain, has unthinkingly created a value system called the “Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”. Consequently, contemporary workplaces increasingly promote tremendous group interactions, open office plans, team work, and so on. The New Groupthink, as Ms Cain terms it, has made its way even to schools: the conventional rows of seating have been replaced by several desks pushed together into “pods” to encourage group learning activities.
For all the benefits of group work, there’s a catch. After she stumbles upon some less-vocal students at Harvard Business School, which places a high premium on vocal leadership, Ms Cain wonders: “if we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day. This would mean that an awful lot of bad ideas prevail while good ones get squashed.”
Things, however, weren’t always this way. In the olden days, much emphasis was laid on a Culture of Character, a term Ms Cain borrows from the cultural historian Warren Susman. Around the turn of the 20th century, focus shifted from inner virtue to outer charm. It suddenly became hip in America to pass around all manner of advice to improve one’s likeability quotient, deeming a charming personality to be a sure-fire way to success.
Read Quiet. There is something for everyone here. For extroverts, it’s a chance to understand your quieter friends, colleagues, bosses, kids, parents, spouse and siblings. For introverts, it could jolt you awake at first. You’d then be tempted to say, quietly, “And I thought it was just me!”
QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING
336 pages; Rs 699