Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain

It was hard to avoid the publicity surrounding this book in the lead-up to its publication, and the author’s interesting TED talk was so gripping that I was very much looking forward to reading this. This review is based on having spent two weeks reading a copy I purchased myself. It’s not a professional rush job.

This is not an academic publication reporting years of empirical research but an anecdotal amalgam of many research projects, along with personal experience, anecdotes, and woven constructs based on real events. There are many notes and references, which are listed in the back of the book in the narrative style, rather than using footnotes or in-text citations. I guess this makes it easier to read for the layperson, but I found the underlined links in my Kindle edition a bit of a distraction.

It first dawned on me that I’m an introvert a few years ago. I haven’t always known, and if you’d asked me before the dawning I would have seen the word “introvert” as pejorative, a value-laden term used to describe the unsocial, rude, socially inept person I sometimes felt myself to be.

Around the age of 13, I was invited to my first proper teenage party: one without adult supervision, and involving music, dancing, and a bit of snogging. I coped fairly well with that first one, but at the second a couple of months later, I was desperately uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do with myself. At the time, I blamed my misery on the fact that a bunch of the sporty boys had switched on the telly and started watching the football. For me, this ruined the party (and I’m sure it did for others), but what really bothered me was the sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere.

My instinct at all parties was to gravitate away from the noise and to find somewhere quiet with one or two other people. Frequently, this quieter place would be the kitchen. But then there was such a social stigma attached to people who hung around in the kitchen at parties that I forced myself not to do it.

Eventually, I just stopped going to parties. And I still don’t. I also deeply dislike dinner parties, office christmas dos, weddings, charity fun days, and other examples of programmed fun.

I know how this has made me look in the eyes of the world. If anything, I’ve become more introverted as I’ve got older. I’m perfectly comfortable at home, and my preference after a long week of work is to decompress quietly over the weekend. At the end of a full-on teaching day, what do I want to do? Nothing. This has led to a bit of conflict in my marriage, because my wife, who is much more extrovert than me, wants weekends to be more action packed.

So Susan Cain’s book was a fascinating read, and it was a great thing to find that my unsocial tendencies are just a natural part of my temperament and not something that is wrong with me.

My job is actually very social. I’m in contact with young people in an active and social way for many hours a day. Like many introverts, I deal with this by faking a certain level of extroversion. This relates to an idea called Free Trait Theory. We can all fake it when we need to. The problem Cain identifies is that society expects introverts to fake extroversion occasionally, but no such demands are made of extroverts.

And this is a problem. It may be the reason the economy is in the toilet, for example. Because Wall Street and the City of London reward risk-taking extroverts.

(It’s not in the book, but I bet it’s the case that the Challenger shuttle disaster happened because an introverted engineer at the flight readiness meeting didn’t speak up forcefully enough – in the right style, I mean – to indicate that cold temperatures were a problem with the SRB O-rings. Someone did say something, but didn’t do so loudly or forcefully enough.)

(Also not in the book: I suspect the secret of The Beatles’ success was down to the magic combination of extroverts and introverts within the band.)

I’ve been encouraged as a teacher to incorporate group work in all my lessons, and to encourage maximum participation. If OFSTED were to observe a lesson, they would likely criticise any teacher who allowed a few students to “get away” with saying nothing in class. You’re supposed to pick lolly sticks out of a pot and call on students to make a contribution.

But for some students this kind of thing causes deep anxiety and unhappiness. Between 30 and 50 percent of them are introverted to some degree, and, in the words of Bartleby the Scrivener, would prefer not to.

I am now resolved to teach these introverted students in the way that they would like to be taught.

Susan Cain’s book might not change your life, but it might explain a few things, and give you some ideas about how to deal with the inevitable social anxieties and conflicts. Worth a read, for introverts and extroverts alike.

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