My Scottish grandfather had a saying he would repeat at family gatherings: “He who is loudest is rightest.” Although he meant it as a joke, the saying does reflect the fact that often it is the loudest person in a room who gets the most respect, or at least the most attention. Extroversion—the tendency to be gregarious, outgoing, and enthusiastic—is an American value and often associated with getting ahead or being a leader.
But in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain begs to differ.
Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert and a former corporate lawyer turned writer, points to research that shows introversion—the tendency to be more reserved and reflective—is associated with many positive benefits, including creativity, innovation, and perseverance. And, contrary to popular belief, it is often introverts not extroverts who make the best leaders, because they listen well and have great emotional empathy—skills useful for getting the most out of your team.
Cain’s book provides the background on how our culture evolved to eschew quiet strength in its pursuit of an “extroversion ideal.” She traces the history of early 20th century figures like Dale Carnegie, who founded the movement toward using personality to sell, all the way through our current fascination with charismatic leaders, like Tony Robbins, who attracts large audiences with his seminars on how to “unleash the power within.”
But, Cain busts several of the myths around the benefits of extroverted leadership. For example, the propensity toward looking inward and weighing options carefully, rather than pushing through one’s own agenda, is a great asset in business, and something introverts are better suited to do. In fact, many successful business leaders are introverts—investment magnate Warren Buffett and Apple founder Steve Wozniak, for example—and their ability to work alone with intense focus has helped spark innovation in their businesses.
Cain claims that we as a society are losing out on the power of introversion by relying on workspace designs—e.g. open office plans—not suited to introverts, who need quiet and privacy in order to concentrate. In addition, many schools favor cooperative learning models in which students’ desks are grouped together to work on collaborative projects, which stimulates extroverts’ learning while intimidating or overwhelming introverts.
Although this may prepare students for work worlds in which cooperation with others is expected, it doesn’t provide introverts with the opportunity to shine. And, since introverts are most creative when they work alone, we can kill innovation by making them work with others constantly.
According to Cain, one’s tendency toward introversion or extroversion is mostly inborn. Yet, parents often worry if their kids are shy because of the cultural message that being shy is not OK or that shy children can’t get ahead in life. Cain advises parents of introverts to stop pushing them toward more social activities, and allow them to do what they do best—create, reflect, and ponder—especially since these skills are useful.
I loved this book because it explains some of the conundrums I’ve encountered in my own life as an introvert, such as why I love people but still find it tiring to interact in large groups, and why I have my best ideas when I’m alone. It also helped me to see that, like my husband and I, other couples struggle over how much socializing to do in their marriages when one member is more extroverted than the other.
Intimacy is important to introverts, and the quality of their relationships is more important than quantity. But, since we live in an extroverted world, Cain suggests introverts would do well to cultivate some social skills, like learning how to have small talk and making eye contact when speaking, to help them navigate social situations that may be required for their work life or social life.
But it would also be nice if the culture could meet introverts halfway, and learn to look at the value of quiet. After all, Americans are often scorned around the world for being loud and brash, causing cultural misunderstandings and resentment. Perhaps if we were more aware of the benefits of quiet, we would stop talking so much and learn to listen better.