This feels like a confession, but I’ll confess anyway. I checked out Susan Cain’s recent book, Quiet, from the library two days ago. It was a little embarrassing.
Sure, I know that introversion isn’t something to be ashamed of, or I wouldn’t have been getting the book in the first place. But our culture generally sees it as something to be ashamed of. In any case, I felt as if I was advertising my brain chemistry to the librarian.
I shouldn’t have felt so awkward. The librarian—a library volunteer, actually—was also an introvert. She noticed the book and exclaimed about the title.
“I’ve heard a lot about it,” I said.
She smiled. “We introverts have to stick together.”
I didn’t think about the irony of her statement until later. Introverts? Stick together? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Not according to Susan Cain—who is also an introvert. Since she used to be a corporate lawyer, Cain knows full well how difficult life can be for an introvert in an extravert’s world. She came from a rather quiet family, where reading separate books in the same room was considered a social activity. Summer camp was a wake-up call. She brought books to camp, but when the other campers purposely excluded a cabin mate who was reading, Cain did not bring out her books for the rest of the summer. Instead, she did her best to fit in with the “rowdie” camp spirit, determined to hide her introversion. (Listen to her description of the incident in her TED talk, found here.) Cain continued trying to appear more extraverted than she was into her years as a young adult, feeling uncomfortable about her desire for quiet.
But Cain came to realize that wanting to be alone with a book was not a bad thing. It simply reflected a difference in temperament between introverts and extraverts, a difference caused by brain chemistry. Spending time with other people energizes extraverts. Left alone, they quickly become bored. Introverts are the opposite—human interaction requires them to expend their energy. Even if they are spending time around people they enjoy, too much human interaction or too many new experiences exhausts them. Thus their need to be alone. It isn’t about being anti-social (most introverts love having deep conversations with other people). It’s about protecting themselves against overstimulation.
Unfortunately, American culture values extraversion more than most cultures in the world, causing many introverts to feel undervalued and misunderstood. Most introverts can probably remember the first time they realized that other people considered their introversion a problem. My first time, rather ironically, was in a library. I hated asking the librarian questions, even when I needed help. I wasn’t the most painfully shy seven-year-old on the planet—a year later I chose to go to summer camp and was not at all homesick—but I did not want to speak to that librarian. The adult that my sister and I were with (an extravert, I think) became disgusted with my refusal to talk to the librarian, so he had my four-year-old sister (also an extravert) go up and ask the question instead. In a mixture of shyness and stubbornness, I didn’t budge.
Cain agrees that there are times when acting like an extravert can be necessary for introverts—if they want to succeed in our heavily-extraverted business world, for example. But she also contends that extraverts should sometimes act like introverts. Both introverts and extraverts have important strengths. Extraverted strengths are obvious—they are assertive, can think on their feet, are not easily upset by conflict, begin jobs quickly, and can be a lot of fun.
But what about introverted strengths? Cain contends that we often do not hear about these strengths, but that they are extremely important. Good listening skills, for example. Creativity. Conscientiousness. Deep thinking. All important traits, vital to the stability of our culture.
Susan Cain’s book isn’t perfect. It focuses a lot on the business world—natural for someone with Cain’s background, but not for many other introverts—and comes from a decidedly secular perspective. (She did interview Adam McHugh, however. McHugh is an evangelical who wrote a book several years ago called Introverts in the Church. I’m adding his book to my to-read list.) But Cain’s book is one of a very few books on introversion written for a popular audience. It is comprehensive, well-researched, and easy to read. And for many introverts, especially those who have grown up feeling as if they have a malformed personality, reading Quiet may prove a breakthrough experience.
If you are an introvert, or an extravert who wants to understand introverts, then read Quiet. Like you teacher said in Sunday School (before ordering you to answer her questions in a louder voice), God made every one of us unique. And Cain’s book attests to just how introversion can fit into His perfect plan.