Is it getting harder to hear the quiet voices among us?

Quiet By Susan Cain Crown Publishers 333 pp

Emily and Greg are a lovely young couple who enjoy life as a twosome – most of the week. But not on Friday nights.

Come Friday night, the gregarious Greg wants to throw a party – the livelier the better. It’s how he unwinds. But Emily, a private person, would find dinner and a movie with her husband more relaxing. Who is right?

More and more, contemporary society imagines that it’s Greg, worries writer Susan Cain in her new book, Quiet. From the halls of Harvard Business School to the pews of today’s megachurches to the places where our smallest children play, Cain suggests, extroverts are viewed as the winners. To be confident, outgoing, and assertive has become a mark of success, while quiet, deliberate people who think before they speak are too often relegated to life’s B-list. 

“[T]oday we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles,” writes Cain. “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts – which means we’ve lost sight of who we really are.”

It wasn’t always this way, says Cain. Coinciding with the rise of Dale Carnegie and his focus on winning friends and influencing people, she posits, America shifted from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality.” As fewer people lived and worked in small towns and on farms, and more worked in offices and interacted with people they didn’t grow up with, gregariousness became a more valued trait.

And yet, estimates Cain, as many as a third to half of Americans are actually what she calls “introverts.”

To understand Cain’s argument, it is important not to confuse introversion with timidity. Although Cain’s definitions remain a bit loose, you could shorthand her message by saying that she defines as extroverts those who find strength from without and introverts as those who draw strength from within.

Introverts are not necessarily shy and not always sensitive (although a goodly number are one or the other and some are both.) An easier way to recognize them is to know that they tend to dislike small talk, have high powers of concentration, and are less likely to be status-obsessed than their more gregarious peers. Their ranks include innovators like Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, revered leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, and courageous heroes like Rosa Parks.

And it’s exactly because remarkable individuals like these have so much to offer the world that Cain worries that society today may be undervaluing them. (Cain, by the way, calls herself a classic introvert – which is why she ultimately decided that her first career as a Wall Street attorney was a mismatch. She insists, however, that she loves and values many extroverts – her husband included.)

Throughout the course of “Quiet” Cain considers the various ways in which society today is unkind to introverts. These include contemporary office plans that afford little or no privacy, a focus on group learning in schools (which often simply means that the loudest voices prevail), and drug companies that encourage the notion that individuals – children included – who are shy or uncomfortable in large-group settings need help from pharmaceuticals.

Cain broadly canvasses psychological and sociological research on her subject. This means she sometimes detours into fields like neurophysiology and not all more-general readers will necessarily be interested in following her there.

But it requires no deep dive into social science of any kind to recognize that the 24/7 media blitz with which we live today is probably least nurturing to those who require the most quiet. And what a shame it would be, Cain suggests, to silence some of the most thoughtful voices among us by requiring them to adjust to a world where outward stimulus and group activities are the new nonstop norm.

In many ways, “Quiet” is a simple plea for individuality. To some degree, Cain indicates, there is an introvert inside each of us. And it would be a mistake for any of us to drown out the promptings of that gentle yet extremely valuable voice.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.

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