Magazine | June 11, 2012, Issue

Running Deep

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (Crown, 333 pp., $26)

The problem awaiting any author seeking to define introversion is that, in essence, it is about not needing, and not particularly liking, people. This is a felony in America, so ways must be found to confuse and overcomplicate the subject so that no one is sure what you are talking about.

Susan Cain, a corporate lawyer, lecturer, and fixture at Psychology Today, gets the camouflage ball rolling with her title. “Quiet” sounds like a Stephen King title, like his Thinner, the one about a glutton who keeps losing weight because of a gypsy curse. We don’t hear about introverts until we get to the subtitle, but subtitles tend to get lost in the shuffle, so she succeeds in getting us to accept her premise that introverts are simply quiet people. A neat trick, but one that raises sticky questions, e.g., how can Trappist monks tolerate communal living?

She avoids such head-on collisions by assuring readers that “we are all gloriously complex individuals” and reminding us of how many different kinds of quiet people there are. “So if you’re an artistic American guy whose father wished you’d try out for the football team like your rough-and-tumble brothers, you’ll be a very different kind of introvert from, say, a Finnish businesswoman whose parents were lighthouse keepers.” As I said, she really forces us to think.

In one sense this is a “fun” book, ideal for promoting on weekend cable shows hosted by those girls who keep flinging their hair. It has a true/false test to find out if you are an introvert (“People tell me that I’m a good listener,” “I’m not a big risk-taker”), lots of case histories (“Esther, a tiny brunette with a springy step and blue eyes as bright as headlamps”), an author who confesses to a secret fear (public speaking, in Cain’s case), and an unchallengeable list of Introverts Who Made Our World a Better Place: Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mahatma Gandhi. All were quiet, even recessive personalities, yet they had such huge followings they could easily pass for extroverts.

The author herself, though claiming to be an introvert, admits to being a “pseudo-extrovert.” Many Americans take this tack, because it makes life easier to pretend to be open and friendly in a society that virtually demands it. Cain knows this because they opened up to her in a big way, or, as she puts it in one of her double-take sentences: “I interviewed hundreds of introverts from all walks of life.” They would rather go off by themselves and work alone but they have been lifelong prisoners of “pods,” from elementary-school seating designed to promote teamwork to today’s open-ended “offices” containing only enough walls to hold up the building. “Groupthink” has ever been their enemy, but now they have found a version they like: social media. They would shrink from addressing a dozen people at a seminar but readily open up to thousands on Facebook and Twitter. Ours is thus, in one sense, the Age of the Introvert, and Cain is upbeat about its possibilities, seeing social media as a way to “extend relationships in the real world” by exposing extroverts to the “contributions” of their opposite numbers; but judging from the vicious and repulsive sentiments that strew these venues, many of these “quiet” keyboard junkies are ready to explode from long-bottled rage.

Cain can blame anything on a shortage of introverts, even the stock-market crash of ’08, which was ostensibly caused by too many extroverts doing what comes naturally: taking risks and thinking positively. She got this from Dr. Janice Dorn, a “‘financial psychiatrist’ who has counseled an estimated six hundred traders.” Cain gets off another double-take sentence with her description of Dr. Dorn, “who, with her flowing red hair, ivory skin, and trim frame, looks like a mature version of Lady Godiva.” How did she get in here? If Lady Godiva was an introvert it must have caused her more pain than her saddle sores. But if we think about this for a minute, we can poke our way through Cain’s tumultuous prose long enough to remember her mantra that introverts are not shy, so we finally get it. One wonders if Dr. Dorn did.

#page#Dr. Dorn is only one of a thundering herd of experts whom Cain quotes incessantly. Nearly every page is littered with groaning lead-ins — “research shows . . . evidence suggests . . . this is not to say . . . according to groundbreaking new . . . in the following experiment performed by the developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska . . .”

She ventures into brain chemistry to explain the physiological influences on personality types, holding forth on the neocortex, the amygdala, the serotonin-transporter gene in monkeys, and the latest findings on “sensitivity.” This last doesn’t refer to the difference between dreamy artistic types and frat rats who think flatulence contests are fun: It has to do with skin conductance tests — measures of literal sensitivity — that can distinguish between extroverts and introverts. Say an introvert came into your home and broke something. His high-reactive sensitive nature would respond with immediate guilt and give rise to a gnawing conscience. But an extrovert who came into your home and broke something would say “Oops, sorry” and be done with it. In other words, he wouldn’t “sweat it.” His low-reactive nature is literally “cool,” as opposed to that of the heavily perspiring introvert. Hence the colloquial expressions “thick-skinned” and “thin-skinned.”

That bit is mildly interesting, but there really are only two good chapters in the entire book. One is an excellent overview of how America came to be the land of the Extrovert Ideal. The 19th century was the Age of Character, when what mattered was what you were like when no one was looking. Starting in the early 20th century we entered the Age of Personality, when what mattered was what you were like when everyone was looking. The change came about with the growth of cities, when young men from trustworthy rural communities found themselves living among strangers who had to be placated and won over, and the growth of big business, with its need for high-powered salesmen.

The “mighty likeable fellow” was born, and nursed through his growing pains by Dale Carnegie, whose first book, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business (1913), enshrined the jovial, bloviating toastmaster. The need to make a “good first impression” triggered heretofore-unknown psychological problems such as anxiety, which increased after Viennese psychologist Alfred Adler published his theory of the “inferiority complex” in 1921. The inferiority complex became such a widespread cause of more anxiety that it was written about constantly in the American popular press, where the name was conveniently abbreviated to “I.C.”

In 1936, Carnegie published his bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, which is still popular. By 1956, William Whyte’s The Organization Man related horror stories about our desperate striving to be “well-rounded,” but it was too late. Today, says Cain, “our ever-higher standards of fearless self-presentation” have produced “social anxiety disorder — which essentially means pathological shyness — now thought to afflict nearly one in five of us.”

Her other good chapter addresses the clash of American extroversion with the Asian cultural ideal of self-contained formality. She centers her interviews in Cupertino, Calif., a majority-Asian community where the sky-high test scores in the local high school have caused “white flight” by parents afraid that their children cannot compete with the Asian penchant for introspection and seemingly endless studying. Cain apologizes for reviving the “model minority” theme, but she does it anyway and deserves credit for it.

She could take it a bit farther, however. It is obvious that the demands of political correctness have made extroverts of us all, i.e., if you are sufficiently outgoing and friendly you make it harder for someone to accuse you of being an -ist, an -ite, or a -phobe. Extroversion for Americans has come to resemble Pascal’s just-in-case argument against atheism. If there really is no God, then you have lost nothing, but just in case there is, you’re covered.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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