Monday, February 20, 2012

"Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain

The church in which my husband and I were married required that all couples undergo pre-marital counseling. It was a good experience, and one moment stuck out to me. My husband was praising my organizational ability and contrasting it with his own "go with the flow" "let it happen" mentality, which often infuriates me. As I was nodding smugly to his praise, the counselor interrupted and noted that just because my organization is good doesn't mean my husband's attitude is bad; there are benefits and drawbacks to both styles of planning.

This conversation came back to me while reading Cain's Quiet. One of her principal points is that Americans typically see extroversion as a strength and introversion as a weakness that should be overcome. I'm a textbook introvert, and I've always seen my preference for staying home snuggled with my husband and a movie (rather than going downtown to a bar with a bunch of people or going to a party thrown by one of my husband's friends) as a failure and a weakness. Just like that pre-marital counselor did for my beliefs about organization, Quiet challenges the pro-extroversion assumption and argues that, in fact, introversion is a great strength that should be valued and even encouraged.

Introversion has many definitions, but academics typically agree on at least some traits. Introverts tend to prefer exploration of the mind; they tire from large social situations and prefer the intimacy of deep conversations among close friends; they tend to be more sensitive. And, as Cain emphasizes in her book, introverts tend to be classified as lacking for being too "shy," "antisocial," or "quiet." One of the best part of Quiet, then, is its constant affirmation to introverts: you are not lacking and you are important to a well-functioning society.

Quiet is a perfect cheerleader for introverts (though, fittingly, a cheerleader who speaks in a well-organized book rather than a bright red mini-skirt and pompoms), as Cain details many studies showing the benefits of introverts in the workplace or as Cain explores how an excess concentration of extroverts helped lead to the financial crisis. After a few chapters, I told my husband (only half kidding) that the primary message I was getting from the book was that "I am more awesome than you because I'm an introvert." To that end, Cain may over-emphasize what introversion has to offer, but I think it's needed considering what a negative reputation introversion has in this country.

One of the fascinating sections of the book for me was Cain's description of the "groupthink" mentality found in schools and the workplace. I went to an Ivy League university for my masters in education, and I've long said that the primary thing I learned during my time there was that everything students do must be done in groups. We were so drilled that group work and cooperative learning were the only methods by which students could learn that for months I was terrified of ever assigning individual assignments. In fact, to this day, I feel reluctant to assign individual work (despite my personal preference for it), thinking I'm somehow harming the students' learning. However, Quiet argues, through numerous studies, that group work actually impedes creativity and effectiveness. I was an outstanding yet introverted student in school, and because of my quiet attitude, I was often overlooked. Now I realize how as a teacher myself I'm perpetuating that cycle.

Quiet is a great book for any introvert who has ever felt like something inside him or her was wrong. The book is also great for teachers, parents, and partners of introverts, as it affirms introverts' tendencies as normal and beneficial and gives tips on how to bring out the best in introverts. Cain uses a variety of studies and anecdotes to make her points, creating an engaging and important book.

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