Open Book

Stop, Look, and Listen!

Resisting the Culture of Extroversion

Magazine Issue
July/August 2012
Open Book, July/August 2012

“Mom, you’re reading that, too!?” My 23-year-old-son, home for a visit, was astonished to see that each of us had picked up the same book: Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It immediately gave us something to-well-talk about.

Forget the paradox that one of Cain’s goals in writing her informative exploration is to get introspective types like my son and me to give a shout-out for ourselves. (It put me in mind of the oxymoronic cry, “Anarchists, unite!”) The very fact that Cain’s celebration of strength through soft-spokenness is on the bestseller list suggests we’ve been listening (quietly) for a long time, baby, awaiting someone like Cain to speak up for us. And she definitely provides a hefty boost of self-esteem to anyone who lives by the principle that you take in more by listening than by interrupting.

Indeed, from chapter to chapter, Cain champions bright students like my son, who lost grade points every semester of his school career for not raising his hand enough (or, as he put it, for refusing to be a loudmouth). She validates introspective types like me, whose lifelong passions include reading, playing music, and taking long walks (preferably in a national park). She delivers some long-overdue respect to the “geeks” and “nerds” and “eggheads” of the world. And she does all this with more than enough smarts and charm to demonstrate that we really are quite delightful souls-once you let us get a word in edgewise.

In making her case (the author practiced corporate law before switching careers to teach negotiation skills and write), Cain uses a broadly encompassing “cultural” (as opposed to a narrower, more psychological) definition of the quiet temperament. An introvert, Cain writes, is someone “who recognizes him- or herself somewhere in the following constellation of attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.” Cain contrasts this quiet type with the man- or woman-of-action type, whom she describes as “ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight.”

Cain admits these are extremes; most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, holding attributes of both types. But her characterization still sounds like mild-mannered Clark Kent versus man-of-steel Superman.

Yet the exaggeration also feeds into Cain’s larger point: that, for all our emphasis on diversity, our culture doesn’t do a good job of respecting temperamental differences. Indeed, too often we assume that the loudest, most outspoken person in the room is the smartest and most competent-and, to our later regret, we disregard the wisdom voiced by quieter souls. As a society, we worship Superman; we ignore Clark Kent. We need to recognize the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of both.

Cain organizes her analysis of the pros and cons of introversion and extroversion around answers to two basic questions: How did it happen that our nation came to value the extrovert personality above all others? What are the cultural and social implications of our contemporary American obsession with the hail-fellow-well-met persona in every realm of public life, from business to politics to education?

Cain traces the evolution of our taste in heroes from the 19th century, when the public admired, above all else, the character of the taciturn pioneer (perhaps best epitomized by the young Henry Fonda playing the young Lincoln), to the talk-show culture of today, which equates cheerleading with leadership and speaking fast and loud with being right. This was propelled, she believes, by the rise of our commodity-driven (and now service-driven) economy. To get ahead, you need to sell and keep on selling; you need to master the power to persuade, to put on a convincing show, and to close the deal. Thus, in the transition from the 19th to 20th centuries, Lincoln, as a model, was overtaken by P. T. Barnum and Dale Carnegie.

In more recent decades, as the importance of who you know has increased even more in proportion to what you know, so has networking and making a “good” (i.e. extroverted) impression grown ever more pertinent to getting ahead. In the contemporary paradigm of how to succeed in business (or just about anything else, it seems) without really trying, personality trumps character every time.

Just how pervasive the ethos of extroversion has become emerges from Cain’s visits to such varied institutions as the Harvard Business School and Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in southern California. At Harvard, where study groups and group socializing are a way of life, she meets introverts who feel pressured to spend as little time alone as possible-and to talk up as often as possible. At Saddleback Church, she interviews a cerebral evangelical pastor who struggles to find a comfortable role for himself in an organization that expects its leaders to be enthusiastic and outgoing. At both places, it seems, sociability is viewed as a higher virtue than solitude.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the culture of extroversion, Cain finds, is the credence it gives to the widespread assumption that it’s always better to work/study/think/brainstorm as part of a team or in groups than to go it alone. But research tells a different story. For instance, in theory, offices that do away with doors and private spaces will promote team bonding and cooperation. The actual outcome is higher turnover of employees, who are less productive (because of the increased noise and interruptions) and more insecure (because of the worry that others are eavesdropping on their conversations).

Then there’s the idea that we learn more efficiently from one another in groups than individually. In some cases, perhaps, but study after study demonstrates that creativity, innovation, and expertise are much more robust when work is pursued in solitude with deliberate focus. As for the highly touted process of group brainstorming, psychologists have repeatedly shown it doesn’t work, for three reasons. As Cain explains, “The first is social loafing; in a group, some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking; only one person talks or produces an idea at once, while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehension, meaning the fear of looking stupid in front of one’s peers.” The result: what Cain calls “The New Groupthink,” a style of learning that encourages conformity, while discouraging marching to one’s own drumbeat.

Ultimately, the extroversion bias finds its most distressing manifestation in parents who worry that their quiet, introspective children aren’t measuring up to their ideal of successful (i.e. outgoing) personalities. Rather than pathologizing their children’s temperament, Cain wisely advises Mom and Dad to “step back from their own preferences and see what the world looks like to their quiet children.” Recognize that the social whirl may stress out your kid, even if it stimulates you. Cain also suggests strategies for adult introverts who are seeking to make their way in a world of extroverts. Many are lessons in self-confidence or pep talks on letting go of self-consciousness. These include getting used to socializing by starting in small doses; finding places to decompress before and after speaking in public; scheduling brief, private, quiet times into your day; thinking of yourself as a “fake” extrovert and playing the role.

None of these tips is profound, and Cain can overstate her case. Her examples of great introverts in history can seem to include every admirable person ever born. I wish she’d delved further into how time and experience can affect temperament over a long life span. She uses herself as an example of someone who, through practice, has learned to mold an outgoing exterior to cover up a natural reserve. As someone who’s gone on a somewhat similar journey, I wanted to ask how much was “overcoming” reserve, and how much was simply a matter of learning, with time and practice and positive feedback, to be less self-conscious and less awkward socially? Rather than new insights, Cain just seems to be recycling Dale Carnegie.

Still, Cain’s message is a much-needed corrective to our cultural enchantment with extroversion. Her book makes for a good way to start the conversation-and may just provide an opportunity to interrupt someone else’s.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.