Challenging the Extrovert Ideal

This is my review of Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain.

"Quiet" will strike a chord if, in an attempt to secure a job, you have ever claimed in a personality test to prefer going to a party to reading a good book, only to find that you still come out with an introvert's score.

Susan Cain makes an interesting comparison between the "Culture of Character", which valued those who were serious, disciplined, modest and honourable (think of a Jane Austen hero) and the "Culture of Personality" with its emphasis on impressing people and influencing them which developed Dale Carnegie style in C20 America to feed an economy based on mass production and sales. The latter obviously tended to encourage "charismatic leadership" and the desirability of employing extroverts. Cain produces a vivid description of Harvard Business School, where the young men "stride, full of forward momentum" and the women "parade like fashion models, except they are social and beaming". "Good luck finding an introvert round here," they quip.

Yet, there is growing evidence of how assertive people who are allowed to take decisions, often on the basis of inadequate knowledge, just because they sound confident, frequently make serious errors which they would have avoided if only they had listened to an introvert. The unwise investments made in the recent financial collapse, and the decision to fight the Iraq War come to mind. By contrast, introverts may make surprisingly effective leaders in organisations where there is a need to be receptive to the ideas of staff undertaking complex tasks.

Cain discusses how introverts may need to "act extrovert" to achieve their ends but also urges them to claim the acceptance to be themselves, not criticised for "working slowly and deliberately", liking to concentrate on one task at a time, and being "relatively immune to the lure of wealth and fame", often called "reward orientation". In a perhaps rather utopian section, she suggests how education could be adapted to meet the needs of introverts e.g. not so often forced to work in large noisy groups with continuous interaction.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction, which provides the gist of the book as is often the case, and the wonderfully entertaining Chapter 2 featuring the "hyperthymic…extroversion-on-steroids" guru Tony Robbins as he sets out to "unleash the power within" at a minimum of $895 a head. This book often seems to be more a dissection of American culture than about introversion.

Although I was initially very impressed with "Quiet", I soon found that the anecdotes seem rather long-winded and corny, the scientific theories a little oversimplified and some of the examples given of introversion appear subjective and open to question. To be fair, this is probably the reaction of an introverted Brit to a relatively over-chatty, populist American approach.I began to skim through, looking for the key observations which could in fact be summarised in a single colour supplement article. Yet, if Cain succeeds in stimulating more people to read about psychology, and induces a few extroverts to think more positively – even gain a little more awareness – about introversion, this book will have achieved a good deal.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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