Speaking Softly: On ‘Quiet,’ by Susan Cain

During my brief and infrequent stints in an office environment, the one criticism consistently lobbed at me by managers and superiors was my perceived unwillingness to engage with people, to favor email over face-to-face communication, for vocalizing my ideas in the casual debriefing we would have after meetings. I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that my preferred method of conducting myself was something I needed to “get over,” and with no small amount of time and difficulty, I did to an extent. But the second my boss presented me with a request for information from somewhere in the company I’d never dealt with before, I would sit at my desk and have to psych myself up for something as simple as an email, then pore over every word, read the thing out loud to ensure the information was related clearly, then get irritated when my carefully constructed email would snag a two-line reply.

How lovely, then, to come across a book arguing that not only is it okay to be how I am, sometimes it’s even preferable.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a 300-page excuse for the introverted to retreatfurther into themselves, rather it’s an indictment of a certain type of Western worldview that puts a premium on the dynamic, go-getter extroverted types at the expense of the more reserved among us who would prefer to make decisions more slowly.  Cain travels everywhere from the Harvard Business School to Cupertino, California to an Anthony Robbins Seminar, marveling at how sharp the dichotomy is between introverts and extroverts really is, and how painful the struggle is for introverts trying to fake it in a world that doesn’t value them or what they can contribute [like the guy at the Harvard Business School who pulls great grades but feels he’s wasting his education because he can’t muster the energy to attend the multiple social outings he was expected to attend every week].

The worlds of business and education come under the harshest scrutiny from Cain, with their unrelenting emphasis on forced collaborations that sometimes do more to stifle innovation than encourage it.  I mean, I was a low rung on the ladder when I was in the office, my busiest day might have involved three meetings at the most.  That’s still at least three hours of the day that I’m not working, at least not under my definition of the word.  I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are actually busy there.

But, the book doesn’t let introverts off the hook, examining the ways in which they can stretch themselves into pretend extroverts to better make their way in the world. It can be done, but it’s important to note, and the book does so frequently, that it really only works when introverts believe fully and passionately about the things they are stretching themselves for: I was able to finally start speaking up in meetings because I fully cared about the ideas we were sharing; I can talk to someone I’ve never met at the bookstore for fifteen minutes or more because I’m passionate about books and reading and want to help a stranger in their reading experience.

While I adored the book, I found I enjoyed it the most when I was able to most recognize my experience in it; when Cain wrote about things like the science of introversion and extroversion or how to encourage introverted kids [subjects I agree the book needed to address] I found myself skimming ahead.

All told, Quiet was a fantastic read, and pretty mandatory for anyone who’s ever been made to feel like there’s something wrong with them because their idea of an amazing Friday night involves a pizza and a movie at home more than a house party crammed with people.

For the interested but lazy, check out Cain’s 16-point ‘Quiet Manifesto,’ [taken from her website] as well as her recent TED Talk on the subject.

1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

2. Our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our “heed-takers” more than ever.

3. Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

4. Texting is popular because in an overly extroverted society, everyone craves asynchronyous, non-F2F communication.

5. We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

6. The next generation of quiet kids can and should be raised to know their own strength.

7. Sometimes it helps to be a pretend-extrovert. There’s always time to be quiet later.

8. But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.

9. Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamplit desk.

10. Rule of thumb for networking events: one genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.

11. It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.

12. “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.

13. The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind.

14. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

15. Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

16. “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi

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