Quiet: How to Empower Our Introverts

February’s Reading Challenge insisted I choose a book from a genre I don’t normally read. Non-fiction and I have scrapped since my school days, as it always feels like an assigned book report. Even if the book sounds interesting, I still struggle to read for pleasure instead of obligation.

Quiet Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain was no different. And, yes, I see this as a lacking on my part. What kind of self-respecting, mature adult only wants to read fictional stories? Well, this kind, apparently!

Quiet felt like a very long personality test, and I don’t necessarily mean this in a negative way. I—like most people, I’m guessing—love taking personality tests. I want to see where I fit into the bigger picture and how my personality jives with other people’s. I also like to try to figure out where my family and friends fit on the personality spectrum. This book, though, felt like it was describing a category I didn’t quite fit, and it had the tendency to look down on the categories I do fit.

Cain starts with a history of how our country changed from prizing introversion (think Abraham Lincoln’s humble presentation) to idolizing extroversion (i.e. Tony Robbins seminars). Instead of valuing strong work ethic and high moral character, our society now looks to external presentation (both personal and professional) as a sign of leadership and success, or a sign of lacking if the presentation doesn’t meet extroverted standards.

This is why I’m married today–minus the dog thing.

Introverts, according to Cain’s research, can thrive in social, outgoing situations, but only on their own terms. They must have time and space for respite, which allows for personal reflection, research, and recharging. As someone married to a stereotypical extrovert, I can agree with this 100%. However, as someone who doesn’t need quite as much down time, I’ve had to come to grips with this.

As a scientist at a major university, my husband works with people from many different cultures. He primarily works with Chinese folks, and Cain’s comparison of the introverted, Chinese culture with America’s extremely extroverted one rang true to my ears. According to Cain, Chinese learners are more likely to listen than respond, while Americans are encouraged to speak out and are frowned upon if they observe from the sidelines. “Class participation” and all that. If American children appear too bookish, they’re labelled as “nerdy” or “braniacs” and cast to the outskirts of social circles. Chinese students, on the other hand, are praised for rejecting social opportunities in favor of studying or improving skills.

Take these proverbs for example:

Eastern proverbs:

“The wind howls, but the mountain remains still.” – Japanese proverb

“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” – Lao Zi, The Way of Lao Zi

Western proverbs:

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact—it is silence which isolates.” – Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Doesn’t this ring true?

Cain does point out repeatedly how our American culture needs a hefty balance of both personality types. Perhaps the financial crash of 2008 wouldn’t have happened if more bull-headed, aggressive extroverts (who were, evidently, in charge due to their outgoing personalities) had listened to their quieter, less social, but more cautious introvert counterparts give warning about pending doom? How can we balance each other in a way that is beneficial to all parties?

“Honey! Let’s go to that party!”

As the extrovert in an introvert-extrovert marriage partnership, I loved how Cain described the “communication gap” and how we can solve it. A developmental psychologist named Avril Thorne held an experiment with 52 young women, 26 introverts and 26 extroverts. They each held 10-minutes conversations with the opposite personality type, then a 10-minute talk with the same type. The conversations were recorded and reviewed. Introverts tended to talk about more serious issues, where each introvert took a turn advising and counseling the other on possible solutions. Extroverts, on the other hand, discussed casual information to build connections.

“But the most interesting part of Thorne’s experiment was how much the two types appreciated each other,” Cain wrote. “Introverts talking to extroverts chose cheerier topics, reported making conversation more easily, and described conversing with extroverts as a ‘breath of fresh air.‘ In contrast, the extroverts felt that they could relax more with introvert partners and were freer to confide their problems. They didn’t feel pressure to be falsely upbeat.”

susan cain
Susan Cain also co-wrote “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids”.

This spoke volumes to me about how I relate to my husband, as well as how we both relate to others in social situations. I’m also glad I can be a “breath of fresh air” to introverts, as I tend to carry the weight of conversations. I, like most women, worry about being “too much and not enough,” so I can feel like my personality can run over those of quieter, more contemplative dispositions.

The final chapter wrapped up explaining how to support an introverted child, especially if at least one parent is extroverted. While my children’s personalities are exploding all over the place, it’s hard to judge yet where they fall on this spectrum. George tends to shy away from new situations, especially those filled with people, but I have the feeling this may be because he’s 3, not necessarily because he’s a textbook introvert. Then again, Olivia already toddles over to strangers and strikes up babbly conversations, so I just don’t know yet.

I want to be understanding of my family’s personalities in order to support them in the best ways possible. I mean, who really wants to be the source of their child’s need for therapy someday? Thankfully, I’m married to a self-realized introvert who is (I believe) 95% comfortable in his own skin. This will help tremendously when deciphering how to discipline, educate, and encourage my children.

OK. I finished Quiet with minutes to spare before March appeared at midnight last night. I’m enjoying taking a little break to read something completely different (fiction, of course). I’ve started Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, which has received rave reviews. I’ll keep you posted if it’s delightful.

What about you? Reading anything good? Reading anything out of your comfort zone?

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