Book review: Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet by Susan Cain Published by Penguin Books 2013 (a thoroughly thumbed copy)

Quiet by Susan Cain
Published by Penguin Books 2013
(a thoroughly thumbed copy)

Put introverts under a spotlight and the chances are they’ll shrivel.  Not in this case.  Susan Cain drags them on to the stage and, positioning herself on volumes of research, she examines their thought processes, their emotions, their development and identities, and their worth to the rest of us.

Quiet is a book about people – about us, and what makes us buzz.  It’s too personal to be purely for academics and it’s too thorough to be dismissed lightly.  In brief – I think she’s unpicked us all.

Cain, at one time a Wall Street lawyer, calls for balance in society and suggests that we should no longer only be tipping our hats to the confident, “mighty likeable” fellows but also to their quieter colleagues.  She wants us to understand and value each personality type.

Quiet shows us how belief in the extrovert has become embedded in Western society.  Examples are given of those who peddle the message of charisma and of the students and consumers who receive it.  The book is broad in its choice of targets and deals with them courteously but leaves its mark.  Harvard Business School (HBS) is one of the first to take a punch to the nose.

An HBS professor tells Cain that the school’s method encourages students to be vocal and decisive.

A student recalls a top tip as:  “Speak with conviction.  Even if you believe something only fifty-five percent, say it as if you believe it a hundred percent.”

The HBS message appears to be that those who hope to influence should embrace the extrovert ideal.  However the references quoted in the book suggest that over-confidence doesn’t always result in better performance.  They show the opposite – that many of the most successful chief executive officers are known introverts.

Wall Street, in the early 2000s, is also brought into focus.  These were the years when the derogatory cry of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) drowned out caution.  One expert witness blames the financial crisis on the controlling power of extroverts whilst the “more cautious and introverted and statistical in their thinking became discredited and pushed aside.”

The book drills into such views and suggests that: “when it comes time to make group decisions, extroverts would do well to listen to introverts – especially when they see problems ahead.”

Cain raises concerns about all institutions which she sees as vulnerable to domination by their louder, more persuasive members.  Her  concerns are backed up by brain studies that show the influence of strong personalities and the rooted instinct in all of us to comply: “to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful and unconscious feelings of rejection…”

America, a nation famous for its extroversion and for living up to the national ideal of the individual, is the perfect background for a book about introverts.   Unlike those from many Asian nations Americans are not focused on the quieter pursuit of group harmony. Cain highlights this difference and uses it to show the difficulties and strengths in the union of opposites.

Her hope is that all of us, the “mighty likeable” and the “quiet”, will learn to work together and, more importantly, that we’ll practice the power of thinking alone.

Quiet is intriguing, clear and knowledgeable – a plea for sense.

Please click this link to see the TED talk by Susan Cain about Quiet

2 thoughts on “Book review: Quiet by Susan Cain

    • It is a great read. You’ll find yourself in there in one of the quizzes. Sort of book you can read by the chapter. I read it straight through – strained my brain in parts. Some of it seems obvious but it’s the way she backs everything up that makes it work. Have fun!

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