Can You Hear Me Now?
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain seeks to create a revolution, and after reading her work one hopes that she is successful. Cain’s mission is simple but important: increase respect for introversion in America.
Making use of current cultural definitions of “extroversion” and “introversion,” Cain deftly explains in Quiet’s opening section that the United States has historically celebrated the “man of action” over the “man of contemplation.” Before the twentieth century, however, this predilection was healthily balanced by the culture’s commemoration of traditional character and its emphasis on humility. As Cain documents, this equilibrium was lost at the beginning of the twentieth century as the country’s economic and demographic shifts increasingly rewarded more boisterous personalities. Suddenly, instead of lifelong neighbors recognizing the value of stoic virtues, transient acquaintances competed to “win friends and influence people.”
Looking at the twenty-first century, over-the-top gregariousness now appears to be the only personality trait celebrated or fostered. From elementary school classrooms to corporate offices, everything is now designed for group activities to supposedly unleash valuable creativity. Standing against these trends, Cain argues that true innovation—and wisdom—grows from solitary reflection. Furthermore, she notes that for introverts—one-third to one-half of the population—solitude is essential for peak performance.
In making her case, Cain primarily couches her arguments in anecdotes from interviews, observations, and her own experience, but her command of contemporary psychological theory should not be underestimated. Despite the use of broad Jungian terminology and rather unorthodox footnoting, Quiet incorporates an impressive swath of modern psychological research in its engaging prose. Academics from a variety of disciplines will cringe over Cain’s broad brushstrokes, but Quiet is not designed as a nuanced treatise. It should consequently reach the far broader audience she seeks, where its reasonable narrative will be a powerful tool to disseminate important information about introversion.
Though praiseworthy on many counts, Quiet does have its limitations, of which two are notable. First, Cain is surprisingly sanguine about social media. Though even her subtitle suggests the inherent problem for introverts (and the wider society) generated by our perpetual noise-makers and distraction machines, Cain claims introverts frequently find online interaction more conducive to their temperament. This may be true, but an analysis of how a culture that is perpetually “plugged-in” damages introverts in particular is unexpectedly omitted. Cain wants the introverts’ desire for solitude respected, and for extroverts to engage in it more, so the fact that recent technological developments make privacy increasingly scarce would seem an important component to her case.
Second, Quiet does at times fall prey to the perpetual danger of popular accounts of personality types—advocates overreaching to explain everything through a simplified lens. To her credit, Cain is clearly aware of the danger, but she sometimes fails to avoid it, as when she implies that the Great Recession could have been avoided if more introverts held higher management positions in Fortune 500 companies. Likewise, at times it seems she believes that every experience in school, career, and love will revolve around where one falls on an introvert-extrovert scale.
To be fair, Cain is clearly aware that extroversion/introversion is only one component of a complex life, but one can reasonably envision some readers trying to explain too much of themselves (or others) through generalizations. Still, Cain’s core passion is to draw attention to the ignored plight of the introvert and this she more than successfully does. Furthermore, she does include such important caveats as an exploration of competing cultural norms and an insightful summation of the nature vs. nurture debate in regards to personality. These and other efforts should caution readers not to oversimplify her argument.
Cain’s clarion call for more reflection, respect, and solitude—and perhaps an implied endorsement of character over personality—is crucial for American culture today. The book is nothing short of essential reading for educators at all levels, who increasingly assume that group work must be emphasized and who frequently evaluate students on unrecognized presuppositions. Cain’s argument can remind instructors of the need to cultivate of a wide variety of personality traits. Perhaps more importantly as the cacophony of the modern world grows ever louder, Quiet can affirm the essential role of the academy to foster contemplation.
Similarly, Cain more than demonstrates that employers who seek to harness the power of introverts and encourage reflection will evaluate their employees more accurately and guide their companies more successfully. Quiet will also prove invaluable for many parents who wish to better understand their children and help them succeed in their schools, careers, and relationships.
Quiet is a valuable book. May its call for both understanding and contemplation be heard above the din.
Dr. Jason R. Edwards is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College and a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values.
Posted: September 15, 2013
Writings after Empire