Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

I’ve been interested in this book about introverts for a long time.  Cain’s premise is that U.S. culture, from workplace to politics, prizes the qualities of extroverts over introverts.  And as someone who’s pretty far on the introverted spectrum, that makes a lot of sense to me. 

It’s easy to oversimplify when you’re talking about introverts and extroverts.  Introverts aren’t always shy and contemplative any more than extroverts are always talkative. Cain talks about many of the qualities of introverts, explaining there is no one single definition. Qualities that define introverts include: preferring one-on-one conversations or small groups to large groups, recharging by being alone, having greater focus and concentration, preferring to watch before jumping in, being more likely to think before speaking, preferring individual work to group work, and discomfort with crowds, trying new things, and taking risks.

Cain makes a distinction I think is important, which is that shyness (insecurity or fear of speaking) is not the same as introversion but the two often get lumped together. I was extremely shy as a child, and I’m much less so as an adult, but I still have most of the tendencies of an introvert. I’m not sure how to separate out that fear from internal preference, but I think it’s an important thing to think about. I was always quiet and observant, and I still am. But as a child I was also afraid of being laughed at or being seen as “too smart”, so I never talked if I could help it. Did that come from something in my childhood or was my discomfort innate?  As an adult I’m no longer afraid of public speaking and I don’t mind meeting new people or working in groups – but I still have that anxiety about being seen as too pushy or too loud.

Cain describes introverts as liking social interaction that is limited or in their control (her example is working at a table in a coffee shop). This describes me really well. I like being around people but don’t want it to be forced (e.g., the dreaded work retreat). I prefer individual conversations to planned events, and I enjoy traveling because I can interact with lots of people but the stakes are low – I’m not going to see them again (compare that to a group tour where you see the same people every day, and the pressure changes considerably). Unfortunately that also means I tend to keep people at a distance. 

I found a lot of application to my work in this book.  I manage about ten people, and in the past year I’ve been responsible for hiring two interns and four employees.  Where in the past I would have focused mostly on a person’s experience, I’ve learned to pay more attention to how the person will work with me and with my team. A lot of that is balancing extroverted people and introverted, and paying attention to those differences. 

I was intrigued by Cain’s theory that introversion is all about sensory perception and reactions to stimuli.  Introverts are highly sensitive and therefore easily overstimulated — this is why they prefer quiet and solitude, and one stimulus at a time instead of many. Extroverts, on the other hand, are less sensitive to external stimuli, so the things that bother an introvert don’t bother them, so they are quicker to “jump in”. 

The sensory perception theory makes sense, and it takes a collection of traits that can seem random and explains why introverts react the way we do. For example, Cain explains why introverts prefer one on one or small group conversations to larger groups. Communicating to a large group involves much more stimuli – you have to watch the facial expressions of multiple people at a time, follow what different people are saying, think about how to respond and then it’s more work to figure out when to talk. It also explains why a zoom call with a group actually feels a lot easier for some of us – I can see everyone at once, focus more easily on their facial expressions, and distractions like body language and anything exterior are (mostly) removed.

With any book like this, there’s a lot of generalization – group work is bad and stifles individual ideas, for example. Cain occasionally does this but then usually pulls back and qualifies her points. Some great accomplishments have required extroversion but others (like most inventions and works of art) could only have been accomplished by an introvert. A takeaway I had from this, as a manager, is to make sure people have the option to work the way they work best, while still getting the job done. 

One misstep in this book occurs when Cain is discussing whether there are physical qualities, like build and eye color, that correlate to introversion and extroversion. She cites research that blue-eyed people are more likely introverted, and speculates that is why Disney heroes so often have blue eyes while Disney villains so often have dark eyes (they are more sensitive). There’s a much more obvious reason for this like the fact that Disney heroes often have fair skin while the villains have dark skin. I’m skeptical about a connection between appearance and personality type. Cain never acknowledges any racial issues in this book, which bothered me.

The chapter on cultural differences was interesting but oversimplified. Cain mainly interviews Chinese-Americans for a comparison, but of course the U.S. and the world is made up of many different blends of cultures. Her point is that while mainstream American culture rewards the outgoing, other cultures reward the thoughtful or the contemplative, but a deeper analysis of different cultures would have been interesting. 

The chapter I found most helpful was the most practical – how can introverts be extroverted when they need to, and how much should you push yourself when it means acting “out of character”? Cain argues that for introverts, if they feel passionately about what they are doing, it’s okay for them to do extroverted activities, as long as they have time to recharge. If an extrovert and introvert are in a relationship, both will have to compromise (for example, one night might mean going out with friends but the next night is home with a book or a movie). 

I’m happily married to a fellow introvert — we both like lots of alone time and neither of us takes it personally. But in my work life, this compromise makes sense. My last job was quiet, analytical, and really challenged me intellectually – but I found myself feeling isolated. My current job has lots and lots of meetings, high stress situations and constant decision-making – but I love the programs I work on and I like pushing myself. I just need extra quiet in my evenings and weekends.

This made me think about COVID, because I think working from home has really enabled me to do my current job well. I’d love to see an update of this research after people spent two years in their homes cancelling all social activities and working from home. I know for myself, it was often a relief, and I really enjoyed the time to myself and with my husband. I also learned how much pressure I felt to be social because that’s what I feel I’m supposed to do.

Clearly, Quiet gave me a lot to think about! I’ve already had a number of conversations at home and at work about this book. It’s an interesting addition to the other books I’ve read about brain research (Unwinding Anxiety, The Body Keeps the Score) and it’s a great companion to Jessica Pan’s Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come. I read this for the TBR Pile Challenge and Backlist Reader Challenge.

  12 comments for “Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

  1. April 16, 2022 at 4:33 am

    That’s a book that’s on my own TBR pile so interesting to read your review. As a fellow introvert I certainly understand many of your points.’I also learned how much pressure I felt to be social because that’s what I feel I’m supposed to do.’ This is something I thought about a lot during the pandemic. As an introvert, the lack of social gatherings wasn’t a huge imposition to me, and since the end of the lockdown I feel like I don’t have to push myself into those situations any more. Lockdown made me more accepting of being introverted. Nice review, this has moved up my TBR.

  2. April 16, 2022 at 9:17 am

    When I first read “Quiet”, I thought “Finally!” I wanted to run out and shove the book at anyone who asked me “What’s wrong,” when I wasn’t as loud and outgoing as they were. Honestly, the pandemic allowed me to do some of my best work, because I was not exhausted from dealing with people in my space all day. I am glad you liked the book. It’s on my own keeper shelf at home.

  3. April 20, 2022 at 11:14 am

    I love this review, it’s very thorough and I appreciated your own examples threaded in. The difference between introverts and extroverts are talked about so much that it’s hard to believe there’s any scientific basis behind the terms, but this breakdown was interesting. The book has been on my radar for a while, so perhaps I’ll get around to reading it soon!

  4. April 20, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Very interesting and I found it fascinating to read about your experiences of the pandemic. I had my lovely quiet space invaded by my husband’s all-day set of meetings, and it’s been very hard to deal with. I didn’t like the American-centric nature of this book and I’ve just revisited my review as I read it so long ago – I thought the association with sensitivity provoked me and indeed it did. I forgot I didn’t like her referencing though! It’s here if you fancy a look

  5. April 21, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    I enjoyed this book as well, even if I already had a good understanding of the concept of introverts. I must have forgotten about the author linking introversion to physical traits, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Yup, introverts have coped better with Covid lockdown – I am still trying to get used to being in the office again, although I do enjoy to see my colleagues again.

  6. April 23, 2022 at 5:45 pm

    Good review! Yes, Quiet was a great read. I only wish U.S. (and Canadian) culture were more accepting of introverts.

  7. April 24, 2022 at 2:09 pm

    Great review of a book that I really liked. I think your assessment of it is spot on–the physical attributes part never made sense to me, but overall I found the book affirming and explained a lot of why I’ve felt the way I’ve felt over the years.

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