Craig Payton/ Book Report: Quiet

by Craig Payton


The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking

Susan Cain – 2012

Why this book?

I had heard a review on National Public Radio not long ago.  The subject matter intrigued me.  I have a lifelong interest in psychology and sociology.  I suspected that I shared many traits with those Cain describes as belonging to Introverts.

Cain; ”Extroverts and Introverts are opposite personalities.  While many might consider extroversion to be desirable or normal, this is definitely not the case in all cultures or at all times in history.”

This book is about introversion as seen from a cultural point of view.  It focuses on the differences between the person of action and the person of contemplation.  It tries to make the point about how we could improve society and the world if we could come to a greater balance of power between the two types.

Introverts recognize themselves as; reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin skinned.

Introverts opposite recognize in themselves one who is: ebulient, expansive sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, comfortable in the spotlight, thick skinned.

To start, one bit of information which I found revealing is that the expressions “thick skinned” and “thin skinned” may be literally true.  Introverts tend to be more sensitive physically speaking, i.e. they literally feel more.  This sensitivity is not only to social interaction but is literally reflected in their sensitivity to all stimulus.  They feel MORE.  Extroverts are LESS affected by stimulus.  they are literally thick skinned, having less physical reactivity to stimulus.

This difference is one of the keys within the different personalities which is present from birth.  Each individual is different and is exposed to different environments during early life.  All are born with greater or lesser reactivity to stimulus.  Those who feel more, react more strongly and tend to become more cautious and thoughtful about their actions and the actions of others.  Those who feel less are affected less and can tend to boldly take action and notice much less the effect their actions have upon others.

Another important point made in this book is that introversion has been unfairly and unwisely undervalued in our culture.

“Introversion, along with it’s cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness, is not a second class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.  Introverts living under the Extrovert ideal are discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.  Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Cain shows that; It is a mistake to embrace the Extrovert as the ideal approach to life.  Studies have shown that talkative people are rated as smarter, better looking, more interesting and more desirable as friends.  These are all perceptions and have nothing to do with the talker’s true qualities as to how smart they are or how good a friend they might be.

“Science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes:’The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with INTELLECTUAL and ARTISTIC achievement.’ ”

Cain notes;

Even in occupations less obviously suited to the introverted, such as finance, politics and activism, some o four greatest leaps forward were achieved by introverts.

This book examines the problems of institutional approaches to work and  learning wh ich are geared towards those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation.  Nowadays classroom desks are often arranged as pods to better foster group learning, and research suggests that a large majority of teachers view the extrovert as the ideal student.  Susan Cain goes a long way in explaining how these views have been formed and how they are often mistaken.  True mastery of a subject is not the result of group learning strategies or teamwork, although there are important lessons to be learned from such collaboration.  Mastery of a subject such as matehmatics, chemisty or music for example comes primarily from focused, solitary study.  Playing a musical instrument provides an excellent example.  After reaching a certain level of mastery you may be able to collaborate with other musicians to create music together, but not until after you have spent many hours of solitary practice to perfect your technique.  To design classrooms entirely away from the opportunity for solitary study is to diminish the depth of learning available, as well as to create an over stimulating environment for children who are more thoughtful and sensitive.

Today it is becoming much more common to teach in pods of four or more desks put together to facilitate group learning activities.  Even subjects like Math and Creative Writing which certainly should depend on individual work and thought are often taught as group projects.  The author reports, “In one fourth grade classroom I visited a big sign announced the ‘Rules for Group Work’, including, ‘YOU CAN’T ASK A TEACHER FOR HELP UNLESS EVERYONE IN YOIUR GROUP HAS THE SAME QUESTION.”  This example to me is both startling and frightening.  I can only imagine how stifling it must be to the inquisitive yet shy student who not only must speak out in a way she finds difficult, but now must win the agreement of all her teammates to make an inquiry of the teacher.  I find this rule HORRIFIC.

Further exploration of our school culture revealed this statement from a fifth grade teacher in Manhattan, “This style of teaching reflects teh business community where people’s respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, NOT their originality or insight.  You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself.  It’s an elitism based on something other than merit.”  This to me is strong evidence of the mistake of valuing style over substance.  Cain wonders, “whether some students would be better off if we appreciated that not everyone aspires to be a leader, or even part of a group.”

Cain takes on the origins of cultural preference for the extroverted personality in hir first chapter: The Rise of the Mighty Likeable Fellow – How extroversion become the cultural ideal.  In this chapter she reveals how a sea change in our culture took place during the course of the 20th century.  In 1913 Dale Carnegie published his first book, “Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business”, followed more famously by his still famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.  Cain remarks that Carnegie was a prime mover in the change in America from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.  The ideal in the Culture of Character was serious, disciplined and honorable.  Ones impression in public was not what counted but how one handled ones private affairs.  Even the word Personality didn’t even exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of having a “good” personality did not become widespread until the twentieth.

When our culture embraced the Culture of Personality we started to focus on how others perceived us. We were captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.   Every American was becoming a “performing self”.  An instructive view of this change can be seen when viewing the history of the self help genre from between the late 1800′s compared to the early 1920′s.

Earlier works featured attributes such as: Citizenship, Duty, Work, Golden deeds, Honor, Reputation, Morals, Manners, Integrity.

Newer guides such as those written by Dale Carnegie emphasized traits such as: Magnetic, Fascinating, Stunning, Attractive, Glowing, Dominant, Forceful, Energetic.

From the early 20′s to the mid century this idea of developing the personality took greater hold until the emphasis in school began to shift from book-learning to “assisting and guiding the developing personality.”  In 1950 the slogan of the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth was, “A healthy personality for every child.”  In this emphasis perhaps we can see the seeds of decline in scholastic achievement in this country which continues in dismal proportion to this day.

Cain makes some effort to understand the current culture of personality and how it is promulgated at our institutions of higher learning.  She explores the nature of students and culture at Harvard Business School.  In so doing she finds one Chinese/American student who while attempting to keep up with the practically compulsory extracurricular activities of his more social peers does acknowledge cultural differences.

He observes: ”In China there was more emphasis on listening, on asking questions rather than holding forth, on putting other’s needs first.”  In the U.S. her feels, conversation is about how effective you are at turning your experiences into stories, whereas a Chinese person might be concerned with taking up too much of the other person’s time with inconsequential information.

A middle manager at G.E. shared with Cain about that corporate culture;”People don’t even want to meet with you if you don’t have a power point “pitch” for them.  Even if you are just making a recommendation to a colleague, you can’t just sit down in someones office and tell them what you think.  You have to make a presentation with pros & cons and a “takeaway” box.”

A major media company human resources director shares with Cain; ” We want to attract creative people,” Cain,”What do you mean?” Answer, “You have to be outgoing, fun and jazzed up to work here.”  To me this demonstrates clearly that this HR director knows what personality traits she likes and which foster fun and good times, but these traits don’t necessarily correspond to a “creative personality”, or demonstrate competence in the particular area this media company operates.

The culture norm of overvaluing extroverted personalities leads to leadership styles which value quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision making.  Cain cites a teaching game played in business school called The Subarctic Survival Situation Game.  In playing this game the whole group contributes to trying to find the best solution to save themselves.  ONe group had a young man with extensive backwoods experience.  His group failed to listen to him because he expressed himself too quietly. “Our action plan hinged on what the most vocal people suggested, ” said one student,”When the less vocal people put out ideas they were discarded.”  Sound ideas which would have “saved” them were ignored because of the conviction displayed by those who were more assertive, but Wrong!

Harvard Business School Professor Quinn Mills responds to the question, “How did this happen?”

“Usually they’re carried away by people who are assertive and domineering.  The risk with our students is that their very good at getting their way.  That does not mean they are going the RIGHT way.”

If we assume that the quiet and loud people have the same number of good ideas, and bad, then we should be concerned fi the loud and more domineering people carry the day.  This will mean inevitably the loss of good ideas and also the promotion of bad ones.  Group dynamics study shows this IS what happens.  Even though better, faster talkers are perceived more favorably, research shows NO correlation between verbal skill and intelligence, judgement, creativity or analytical power.  Do we now place too much value on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking?

Cain explores this further and gives ample proof of the mistakes of the workplace which is overly focused on group work and doesn’t value working alone.  The spread of “groupthink” can kill creativity while the most forceful personalities promote mediocre ideas and kill good ideas being promoted by those less skilled at presentation.  This is the triumph of Style over Substance.

In section two Cain makes some attempts to color in the gradations between the two poles of Extroversion/Introversion.  Of course almost no one is purely one or the other, although I find it interesting to note that pure Extroversion finds it’s expression in the sociopath.  She writes about strategies to overcome the limitations of the introvert style while still honoring itas a valid approach for as much as half the population.  She makes the point that the most well adapted introverts have come up with ways to behave in a more extroverted fashion. The difference is that these are learned behaviors and the introvert is well advised to seek out and understand their deep motivations to take on more extroverted tasks such as the most difficult of all public speaking.

In part three Cain explores briefly the distinct differences between the West and the East, demonstrating that Asia, especially China has not adopted the Culture of Personality as have we American and Westerners in general.

In part four Cain seeks to offer solutions with chapters such as;

9.  When should you act more extroverted than you really are?

10. The Communication Gap; How to talk to members of the opposite type.

11. …How to Cultivate Quiet kids in a World that can’t hear them.

In my view this last chapter is a very important one and one whose ideas I hope all teachers can be exposed to.

One of the most heartbreaking stories she tells demonstrates the problems of a poor fit in style between Parents and their children.  With two outgoing, active, competitive parents the child in question was quiet, passive, bookish.  The parents sought help for their son who they incorrectly judged to have a problem.  This was a problem of misunderstanding that their child processes things quite differently than they do.

There are more examples of this type of misunderstanding and I think they are tremendously instructive for parents and teachers.  We all wish popularity for our children.  This style of having many, many firends is definitely not appropriate for everyone.  If a child has a few, or even two or three good friends this is also quite healthy and normal.  An important point made is that many people find school very difficult but after leaving that environment seem to mysteriously blossom.  In fact those with a tendency to need more down time, more solo processing of the world, more contemplation may find that after leaving school they are able to operate in a way much more suitable to their style, leading to great success in their chosen field.  This is the story of so many so called geeks and nerds, who we all know formed the foundation of our modern computer filled society.  Forcing such individuals to socialize in a manner which is unnatural to them is not good for their development or self esteem.

There are some excellent pieces of advice for teachers.  The fact is that introverts need different kinds of instruction than do extroverts.  If a child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one there is nothing wrong, except that it doesn’t fit into the prevailing model.

1.  Dont think of introversion as something that needs to be fixed, or cured.

2.  Studies show that 1/3 to 1/2 of us are introverts.

3.  Encourage introverts to pursue any deep interests they may have.  This intense level of interest tends to develop into true talent in that field.

4.  Some collaborative work is fine, but best to take place in small groups.

5.  In many fields it is impossible to gain master without knowing how to work on ones own.  This is a lesson the extroverts need to learn from their quieter peers.

Cain goes on to list some traits to look for should you have the great luxury to pick and choose the school your child may go to.  I am delighted to report the charter school in our town fits most of these criteria.

In summary I feel this book is a very important counter point to the trends in our culture created by the emphasis on the Culture of Personality.  Cain emphasizes the need for a balance, not a struggle to suppress either side, but a recognition that both styles are important.  I feel this is an essential book for teachers and parents, but also for Business managers and human resource professionals especially.  I give this book my highest recommendation.

Through the study of Quiet I have learned a great deal about myself, my children and our culture.  These insights will prove useful to all of us.

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