Bonnie Wyler is a Literacy/Outreach Librarian at the library. Read Bonnie’s column in the September 6, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a book that I recently enjoyed immensely. I was drawn to this title because I’ve always seen myself as an introvert, but didn’t know much about what that meant, and I thought of it as a failing. I belong to a book group with only three people because I know from experience that I don’t talk in a larger group. I feel awkward introducing myself in a group, even if I know most of the people there. Like many introverts, I tend to feel bad about myself when I react this way. In reading Quiet, I came to realize that these traits are a normal part of an introverted temperament, and that, in fact, there are distinct advantages to this undervalued personality type. Interesting chapter headings in Quiet give the reader an idea of what lies ahead:
“The Extrovert Ideal,”
“Your Biology, Your Self? – Is Temperament Destiny?”
“The Communication Gap: How to Talk to Members of the Opposite Type.”
From the first page, I was drawn in by this beautifully written book, filled with interesting individual profiles and the latest research.
Many people see themselves as either introverts or extroverts, but what exactly does that mean? According to Cain, many psychologists agree that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation they need to function well. Introverts need less, extroverts need more. An introvert might prefer to stay home and read a good book, rather than go to a party. Introverts enjoy thinking about things, having deep discussions, listening more than talking. Extroverts are more assertive, more talkative, more comfortable in the spotlight. They prefer action to contemplation, certainty to doubt. These two personality types work differently too – extroverts make fast decisions while introverts work more slowly and deliberately, and prefer to work alone. When I asked my niece, a piano teacher at St. Olaf College, what personality type she thought was, she told me, “An introvert, of course! How else could musicians spend hours a day alone in a practice room?” It made perfect sense. I thought about my decision-making style – slow, cautious, rarely confident – your typical introvert. Somehow I found it reassuring that in the world of introverts, I was normal.
In the United States, it’s more acceptable to be an extrovert than an introvert. In fact, Cain says, Americans are some of the most extroverted people on earth – she calls the value system in this country the “Extrovert Ideal.” Research psychologist Robert McCrae has published a map of the world based on personality traits, showing shades of gray for introversion and extroversion. According to his map, Asians are introverted, while Europeans are extroverted. Asian cultures value quiet and introspection, humility and sensitivity, which contribute to harmony within the group, and they focus on moral virtues and achievement. Western societies value traits like boldness and verbal skill with the accompanying focus on individuality. Cain talks to Asian-American students about the culture-shock they experience in American-style classrooms, where speaking in class is expected. Their inclination is to listen and show reverence for the teacher. One way is not intrinsically better than the other, but it can be difficult to maintain self-esteem when one is not in-sync with the dominant culture.
We all grew up with expectations and messages about how important it is to be friendly and outgoing in social settings. In school, we were expected to take part in class discussions – many teachers gave grades for class participation. Being quiet was something to be overcome. Cain talks about how important it is for parents and teachers to understand and accept introverted children for who they are and to value their gifts of sensitivity, caring and empathy. She thinks many schools are designed for extroverts, with students frequently working in large, noisy groups where the more dominant children do the talking. An introverted child needs a quiet classroom and the chance to work intensely on projects he or she cares about. Knowing how to work independently is an important skill for all students to learn. Teachers can encourage quiet children to speak in class, but should understand their temperament and not force the issue. Their talents lie in other areas.
In Quiet, Susan Cain has written a book that challenges long established assumptions our culture makes about the value of introspection, sensitivity, and the power of quietness. She talks about why some of the world’s greatest ideas, art and inventions have come from introverts, “…not in spite of but because of their introversion.” The wealth of interesting information in this book comes alive because of the wonderful way Cain intersperses fascinating personal stories with the latest scientific research – and then draws insightful conclusions. There are important messages in her book for extroverts as well as for introverts. She makes it clear that both personality types can learn to “stretch” themselves to develop the skills they need – introverts interacting more in social situations and extroverts learning to benefit from quiet. In the introduction to the book, Cain says, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.” She succeeded in that wish with this reader.