Susan Cain's book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking is an intelligent, literary reflection on the undue dominance of extroversion in our society and the neglected strengths of introverts. It is a cultural critique but critique is somehow too harsh a word for this gentle, personable, historically grounded, psychologically precise defence of introversion. Cain describes the rise of the extrovert as cultural norm and ideal, and the impact this has had on schools and workplaces in the last few decades. We've adopted a bias toward the extrovert as a better leader, the group as a better generator of ideas, and the open plan office as a better way to work, but numerous studies show this bias is misleading. Cain reminds us how much creativity (in all fields) is solitary, and how our understanding of genius and proficiency has all along involved introverted behaviours - like solitude and concentration; the 10,000 hours theory - that we've somehow misfiled as eccentricity. She is generous toward extroverts - they have, it emerges, many fine qualities - but I confess to a certain smug satisfaction (and confirmation bias) in some of her descriptions of their shortcomings.
As an introvert, I found the book affirming and liberating. I don't have to feel guilty for being quiet or reticent. It's fine to prefer my own company to yours. I might even be some sort of genius! It opened my eyes to the complexity of personalities trying to relate to one another in marriages or friendships or at work: personality encompasses far more than how much you want to party. And as the mother of an introverted child, I took especial note of Cain's caution that introvert children do not need to be taken out of their shells, should not be told they are shy or that their shyness is something they must overcome. As Olivia gets older and the demands on her limited supply of social energy grow, I want to be mindful of her need for space and her right to have and be quiet.
Coincidentally, just as I finished reading, I came across this lovely poem, 'His Wealth,' by Robert Francis - a poet influenced by Robert Frost and whom Frost called the greatest of all the great neglected poets. It speaks to the wealth that silence both creates and conceals, and the perilous line introverts walk between the riches of solitude and the risks of being alone. Whether you find this alienating or affirming might depend on your personality more than on your taste. Having read Quiet, I feel as though I'm in on the secret of his wealth. It's mine too.
His willingness to be alone,
His happiness in being alone,
Was what they never could forgive.
Either he loved his loneliness
Too much, or loved his friends too little.
And didn't the one imply the other?
True, what they missed and wanted most
Was not so much his company
As evidence he wanted theirs.
Where had he kept himself all week?
Always they seemed to want to know,
Yet at the same time not to know,
As if they hoped and feared to find
That all his secret wealth was both
Within and far beyond their reach.