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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

March 29, 2013


When my wife and I were doing our pre-marriage counseling, the priest told us that one of the most important things we could understand in our relationship was how the other person processes information. Introversion is conventionally understood as shyness, extroversion as gregariousness. But the more important aspect, we were told, was how these two different personality types like to think—quietly or out loud, thinking alone or talking through issues. This book takes that understanding quite a few steps further. Introverts not only process information by thinking alone, but they like to work alone, they like to hole up and dig in. They like to listen and think before they speak. And they find social situations draining.

What surprised me most about this book was how strongly I fit the introvert profile. I work in a profession and in a role that requires me to work in teams, conduct meetings and make presentations on a daily basis. But on Cain’s unofficial introversion quiz, I gave the “introvert” answer for 19 out of 20 questions. I prefer to work alone, quietly. I like to have my own time, my own space.

The troubling thing for introverts is that corporate America is increasingly built for extroverts.  Offices are giving way to open environments. Time to solve problems in solitude is being edged out by brainstorming meetings. Business schools teach students that it’s better to speak and be wrong than to sit silently in a meeting. This all creates an environment that is difficult for introverts, who make up an estimated 1/3 of the workforce.

Cain makes the point that the success of collaboration via open-source Internet has in one critical way been misunderstood: those collaborators were not brainstorming together. They were working solo, then adding their solutions to the mix. Studies (and painful painful experience) indicate that brainstorming meetings are inefficient, and Cain explains why: ten people brainstorming in a room are rarely ten people exploring ten different solutions. More likely, there’s one person speaking about one solution, while the other nine are waiting their turn to speak.

Cain discusses ways to make the workplace friendlier for introverts—mostly by understanding and appreciating them. She discusses cultural differences in business, how Americans value confidence and bombast while many Asian cultures prefer modesty and deference. She also gets into introversion in interpersonal relationships (spouses, parent-child, etc.). I found these last bits less novel. And at times Cain makes it seem like all introverts are just quiet geniuses being held in check by loudmouth bullies. But overall, the book offers a new perspective on the importance of having a workplace that still provides opportunities for quiet contemplation as well as a culture that recognizes that the best ideas aren’t always said with the loudest voice.

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