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James Goodall
Features Writer
12:00 AM 4th July 2024
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Opinion

‘Beyond All This, The Wish To Be Alone’*: Susan Cain’s Quiet

 
How amazing it is when life suddenly starts making sense! Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet (2012) has been quite the voyage of self-discovery. I’m not a fan of labels per se, but ‘introvert’ is one I’m happy to adopt and wear proudly. At least now I have a classification for the mixed bag of attitudes and behavioural traits that make me who I am.

Up to a third of the population is introverted, Cain tells us, which is frustrating as the world appears to be built predominantly for extroverts: ‘We live within a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is … comfortable in the spotlight … We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual – the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there”’.

But some of us choose not to follow the herd or conform to social expectations. Some of us prefer a quiet space to a crowd. Consequently, we are often misdiagnosed as distant or antisocial. But not so. We just like our space. Hey, we even like a break from people we’re close to! ‘Long visits don’t make good friends,’** to quote J. M. Coetzee.

Cain stresses that there are no absolute introverts or extroverts. Introversion-extroversion is, in fact, a sliding scale. But where do we fit individually? Cain includes a number of tests to help us. I’ve taken them, as have my family and friends, and the findings are freakishly accurate. I score 18 out of 20 on the scale, making me a card-carrying introvert.

For a long time prior to this, I felt something wasn’t right. Others would compound this feeling with such helpful phrases as, ‘Why don’t you join in? Can’t you be more sociable?’. Because fundamentally altering one’s personality is as easy as changing the shirt you’re wearing. No problem; I’ll just re-sequence my DNA. But Quiet has been something of a Rosetta stone. It’s as if my confused thought patterns have finally been put through Google Translate and turned into something intelligible. And reading Cain’s work has made me realise I’m not alone. Many of us, it seems, have been made to feel guilty for the way we are and to self-flagellate for some form of original sin, as if we’ve let the side down.

But there isn’t anything wrong. That, above all, is the point Cain tries to make. As introverts, we spend so much of our time adjusting to society’s noise, but we don’t require permission to be our true selves. This is part of who we are, and that’s no bad thing.

Cain argues that society shouldn’t necessarily be devoted solely to extroverted modes of thought and that more of an effort should be made to harness the quiet power of introverts: ‘Conviction is conviction … at whatever decibel level it’s expressed’.

Take the world of work, for instance, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to function as an introvert. ‘As adults,’ Cain writes, ‘many of us work for organisations that insist we work in teams … for supervisors who value “people skills” above all.’ Open-plan offices, huddles, and meetings for the sake of meetings are now the norm, as well as an introvert’s idea of hell. Those of us who have the option to work from home are likely already doing so.

In many workplace environments, corporate camaraderie is championed as the number one ideal. Being one of the quiet ones, less so. For some introverts, the daily demands of office life may be only slightly annoying; for others, it’s a non-stop endurance test. Small talk is particularly arduous as it requires a vast amount of energy to muster and deliver. We ‘have trouble projecting artificial enthusiasm’, Cain notes, but ‘you can fake it … if you master the acting skills’. Indeed, I masquerade daily as an extrovert, albeit with mixed results. Much of my profession is customer service-oriented and telephone-based. I can put on a good show for a time. But come lunchtime, I’m flagging.

‘Open-plan offices,’ Cain states, ‘have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.’ All the more reason, then, for businesses to consider a hybrid working policy!

Furthermore, those with louder voices, and who are more willing to play the game, are more likely to get ahead in the workplace. But why should gregariousness and overconfidence be preconditions for success? ‘Since when,’ Cain asks, ‘is solitude one of the Seven Deadly Sins? … It’s important for companies to groom listeners as well as talkers for leadership roles.’

Introverts are no less capable; we just work differently. Cain notes how introverts prefer to work more slowly and deliberately, how we like to focus more on one task at a time, and how mighty our powers of concentration can be.

She cites many notable introverts who’ve made a difference. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, in particular, whose achievements revolutionised technology and brought people together on a grand scale. ‘We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies,’ Cain stresses. ‘We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.’ It’s ironic, too, how many of the great social media platforms were originally the brainchildren of like-minded introverts.

Quiet is well-researched and draws upon a wide range of case studies, facts, and interviews to back up its claims. Cain explodes the myth that being outgoing and a keen participant in group activities is a boost to productivity: ‘Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases’. Nor is it a sine qua non for creativity: ‘(T)here’s zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas’. Indeed, very few of the great works of literature were written by committee. Teamwork doesn’t always make the dream work.

However, it is important to note that Cain doesn’t present the introvert-extrovert dichotomy as a grudge match. Quiet is a far more nuanced study, encompassing such aspects as the early industrialisation of the US and its subsequent need for snappy salesmen, as well as the innovation of the World Wide Web, which gave introverts a chance to network without having to leave their comfort zones. It even makes the case for introversion-extroversion as genetic traits stemming from primitive brain forms.

For my part, let me conclude by saying that I like extroverts! What would we do without them? Who would phone our takeaway orders through, and who would order our taxis home? We’d be hungry and stranded without them! Just as it wouldn’t do for us all to be exclusively extroverted, nor would it do for us all to be exclusively introverted. We need a balance of both temperaments. Life would be intolerable if we lived in an emotional echo chamber. ‘Humanity would be unrecognisable, and vastly diminished, without both personality styles,’ Cain adds. In other words, this town is big enough for the both of us!


Quiet is published by Penguin.

*Philip Larkin, from ‘Wants’ (1950).
**J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999).