It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words – it would be a surprise if I weren’t an introvert!
However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.
One of the best aspects of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don’t have a specific reason for being there, or don’t know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I’m comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.
Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.
Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.) Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you’re vigilant, you’re wary, which means that you’re probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.
Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don’t we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don’t we value independence and intense focus?
Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it’s a question I’ve thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.
Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of “introvert cultures” and “extrovert cultures” and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: “Western” society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but “Asian” society is an introvert culture.
What’s bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What’s worse is that she treats “Asian” culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don’t show up in a massive majority of the world’s population.
All that aside, in many other ways the book’s information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain’s descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I’ve felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.
Up next: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe