Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, Review

Susan Cain’s Quiet is a gentle type of manifesto, neither shouty nor polemical.  But the revolution it demands is a major one. In a culture dominated by the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, Susan Cain stands up for the soft-spoken and sets out to remind the world how much it needs introverts.

One third to one half of the world’s population are introverts. Yet those who are lucky enough to be blessed with this personality type tend to be too shy to admit it. Most do their best to blend in with the outgoing and the sociable for fear of appearing inhibited or cold. But why is introversion seen in such a negative light? Why are fast talkers running the world today? And does it have to be that way?

Susan Cain
Susan Cain

Susan Cain tackles these questions with a compelling mix of science and history, spicing up popular science with a pinch of self-help advice. Like recent non-fiction bestsellers such as Johann Hari’s Lost Connections or Giulia Enders’ Gut, Quiet dives deep into the facts to emerge with insights that have the power to change lives.

The distinction between extroversion and introversion is one of the most influential concepts in psychology. First introduced by Carl Jung in 1921, it remains key to how we understand personalities today. Yet what started as a mere scientific description, setting apart people who ‘are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling’ from those who prefer ‘the external life of people and activities’, has turned into a powerful weapon on an ideological battleground:

Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts – which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. […] Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness – is now a second class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

Cain exposes the cultural shift that led western societies to adopt the extrovert ideal. As the eighteenth century focused on ‘inner virtue’, this turned into nineteenth-century infatuation with ‘outer charm’, likability and charisma. Pointing out that our society is obsessed with what she calls ‘New Groupthink’, Cain criticises  how the idea of constant collaboration took over both the corporate world and the classroom. She debunks the myth that extroverts always make the better leaders and that successful politics is all about talking big. But she also shows ways out of this ideological dead-end which is hurting not only introverts but society as a whole.

Taking the most recent learnings from psychology, sociology and neuroscience as a starting point, Quiet offers intriguing insights into the importance of solitude for creativity and how quieter leadership styles can offer stability. For example, a study in psychology carried out among music students at an elite music conservatory in Berlin discovered that the best players who had potential to become international soloists spent significantly more time practicing their instrument in solitude, compared to their less talented peers. While both groups practiced for roughly the same number of hours, it was the solitary work which gave the better players the edge over the competition.

The final part of the book is dedicated to more practical advice, addressing questions such as ‘when should you act more extroverted than you really are?’, ‘how to talk to members of the opposite type’ and ‘how to cultivate quiet kids in a world that can’t hear them.’ It is in this part that Cain’s commitment to her cause is felt most strongly. She writes not just for entertainment but for sustainable social change. ‘If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself. I can vouch personally for the life-transforming effect of this outlook.’

For Cain, this is a personal matter. As an introvert herself, she admits that this book has been in the works ‘unofficially for [her] entire adult life.’ Coming from a bookish, quiet home, she describes summer camp at the age of ten as a pivotal moment when she experienced for the first time the social pressure to act extroverted. As if to prove to herself (and the world) that she was tough enough to live up to these expectations, Cain went on to become a Wall Street attorney and a negotiations consultant. It took her years to finally accept her own sensitivity and embrace a quieter lifestyle that better suited her personality.

Quiet by Susan Cain

Researching Quiet, it would have been easy and only natural for an introvert like Cain to just disappear among piles of books and scholarly articles. But instead of providing readers with a mere literature review, Cain weaves together a compelling tapestry of diverse sources. The reader follows her from chapter to chapter as she discusses personality traits with behavioural psychologists, interviews sociologists, attends workshops on public speaking and American business culture, visits Harvard Business School to speak to tomorrow’s leaders, and even immerses herself in the world of the self-improvement guru Tony Robbins. Many of her points are powerfully illustrated with personal stories from the lives of Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Wozniak or simply an Asian-American teenager growing up in Cupertino, California. Cain might be biased in favour of research that presents introversion in a positive light, but she is careful, frequently highlighting the limits of her statements or offering alternative interpretations of scientific results.

Quiet may be a powerful manifesto, but it is one that suits introverts as it slowly and thoughtfully gathers evidence. It offers room for doubt and does not rush to conclusions, but it also does not hide the facts or shy away from calling out prejudice or injustice. Cain’s 2012 TED talk – which I highly recommend – was viewed more than 20 million times. In 2015, she launched Quiet Revolution, a platform designed ‘to unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all.’ The organisation runs initiatives for business, government, office space planning, education, lifestyle and parenting which address some of the key issues raised in the book.

And yet, despite all her zeal to speak up for the soft-spoken, Cain highlights again and again her love for extroverts. Quiet is not a book about superiority, it is about emancipation: ‘Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.’

Quiet : The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is published by Penguin