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The Power of Being an Introvert in a World That Can't Stop Talking

As a society, we worship Superman; we ignore Clark Kent. We need to recognize the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of both.
 
 
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"Mom, you're reading that, too!?" My 23-year-old-son, home for a visit, was astonished to see that each of us had picked up the same book: Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It immediately gave us something to-well-talk about.

Forget the paradox that one of Cain's goals in writing her informative exploration is to get introspective types like my son and me to give a shout-out for ourselves. (It put me in mind of the oxymoronic cry, "Anarchists, unite!") The very fact that Cain's celebration of strength through soft-spokenness is on the bestseller list suggests we've been listening (quietly) for a long time, baby, awaiting someone like Cain to speak up for us. And she definitely provides a hefty boost of self-esteem to anyone who lives by the principle that you take in more by listening than by interrupting.

Indeed, from chapter to chapter, Cain champions bright students like my son, who lost grade points every semester of his school career for not raising his hand enough (or, as he put it, for refusing to be a loudmouth). She validates introspective types like me, whose lifelong passions include reading, playing music, and taking long walks (preferably in a national park). She delivers some long-overdue respect to the "geeks" and "nerds" and "eggheads" of the world. And she does all this with more than enough smarts and charm to demonstrate that we really are quite delightful souls-once you let us get a word in edgewise.

In making her case (the author practiced corporate law before switching careers to teach negotiation skills and write), Cain uses a broadly encompassing "cultural" (as opposed to a narrower, more psychological) definition of the quiet temperament. An introvert, Cain writes, is someone "who recognizes him- or herself somewhere in the following constellation of attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned." Cain contrasts this quiet type with the man- or woman-of-action type, whom she describes as "ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight."

 

Cain admits these are extremes; most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, holding attributes of both types. But her characterization still sounds like mild-mannered Clark Kent versus man-of-steel Superman.

Yet the exaggeration also feeds into Cain's larger point: that, for all our emphasis on diversity, our culture doesn't do a good job of respecting temperamental differences. Indeed, too often we assume that the loudest, most outspoken person in the room is the smartest and most competent-and, to our later regret, we disregard the wisdom voiced by quieter souls. As a society, we worship Superman; we ignore Clark Kent. We need to recognize the relative strengths, and weaknesses, of both.

Cain organizes her analysis of the pros and cons of introversion and extroversion around answers to two basic questions: How did it happen that our nation came to value the extrovert personality above all others? What are the cultural and social implications of our contemporary American obsession with the hail-fellow-well-met persona in every realm of public life, from business to politics to education?

Cain traces the evolution of our taste in heroes from the 19th century, when the public admired, above all else, the character of the taciturn pioneer (perhaps best epitomized by the young Henry Fonda playing the young Lincoln), to the talk-show culture of today, which equates cheerleading with leadership and speaking fast and loud with being right. This was propelled, she believes, by the rise of our commodity-driven (and now service-driven) economy. To get ahead, you need to sell and keep on selling; you need to master the power to persuade, to put on a convincing show, and to close the deal. Thus, in the transition from the 19th to 20th centuries, Lincoln, as a model, was overtaken by P. T. Barnum and Dale Carnegie.