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Quiet – on the power of the introvert

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Every so often, a book comes along that changes things, and Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of introverts, their traits and their habits, and an examination of their place in a world run by and for extroverts, is one of them. It wasn’t always this way, she tells us. Before the rise of the Culture of Personality in the early twentieth century, when Dale Carnegie taught us all how to win friends and influence people, there was the Culture of Character, when moral standing in one’s community was the most important thing of all. As people increasingly moved away from small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else (and their business!), it became more important to make a good first impression, something that often comes more easily to extroverts than introverts – or at least introverts who know how to exhibit extroversion.

Introversion isn’t the same as shyness, says Cain, and that is very true, although many introverts are also shy. Many are also what she calls ‘sensitive’ or ‘high reactive’. She discusses a study of children (from the time they were babies) where the subjects were tested for reactivity by measuring their responses to things like loud popping balloons (babies) and seeing scary-looking strangers in gas masks (young kids). Some babies and children took these surprising new things in their stride and others reacted strongly, but this isn’t a case of one set being deliberately braver than the other; the study showed that some children (and therefore some adults) simply are more sensitive to stimulus than others.

High reactives are not always introverts, and vice versa, but there is a strong correlation between the two types and it makes sense. Low-reactive extroverts need more risk, noise, colour, company and novelty to make a dent on them, whereas sensitive introverts need far less. Being curled up on a sofa quietly reading a book may seem understimulating to the point of deathly boring to one person, while being jostled in a colourful, loud bar, full of new faces is another person’s worst nightmare. That is perfectly natural, and indeed there many of both types of personality (it is estimated that between one third and one half of the world is made up of introverts). So everyone knows plenty of introverts, and yet, Cain argues, in the modern world they often seem invisible, at least in the West.

Cain considers the difference between Eastern cultures, which are often based on community ideals, and the Western culture of the individual. Interestingly, she studies a number of Asian-Americans who are often, and in many ways, caught between two different worlds. She explores the idea of ‘soft power’ and how this can sometimes be more effective than ‘hard power’ and considers how introverts and extroverts can work together in harmony (see Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), and how each type has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. She discusses how dangerous it can be when a relentless insistence on extroversion leads to groupthink, how the Wall Street crash was wrought in large part by an imbalance of power between introverts and extroverts, and investigates some fascinating outliers – the super-wealthy introvert Warren Buffett, for example.

Cain also considers how far temperament is destiny, how much nature and nurture interact when it comes to temperament, whether it ever makes sense for introverts to borrow extrovert ideals (and vice versa), and crucially, what introverts and extroverts need to be happy, and how you can live in the modern world and stay true to the core of who you really are in terms of temperament.

This is an absolutely fascinating read, whatever your personality style, but if you suspect you might be an introvert, reading this could genuinely change your life. It’s meticulously researched, but written in an appealingly accessible style and will make many people reassess certain things in their lives and how they approach them. Maybe your child likes their own company and you worry they won’t learn the things they need to live in this extroverted world; maybe you’re an outwardly gregarious person in a high-powered job who sometimes shuts yourself away in a bathroom stall for an hour and thinks you’re alone in doing that (you’re very much not); or maybe you’ve always thought there was something a bit weird about the way you think and the way you are inside, and you wish there was a way you could just be allowed to be yourself at work, at home, or wherever. If so, this book comes particularly highly recommended.

Susan Cain’s Quiet is an ingenious, intriguing thesis that turns on its head the prevailing view that introverts are people who are simply not capable of being extroverts, and asks whether we can make the world better by righting its lop-sidedness, and looking at certain things in a different way. It’s worth considering at least, isn’t it?

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