‘Watch the quiet ones’ — a discarded adage in a Mecca for empty vessels


Susan Cain

Penguin Viking 2012

Paperback, €19.80;

ebook, €7.99, €27.20

Review: Terry Prone

Rare it is, the book that announces itself as overdue. As having been relevant before it was written. As the voice articulating what nobody has, up to that point, been courageous enough to articulate, because it challenges the consensus adopted by all reasonable people. This year, that book is Susan Cain’s Quiet, which dumps on what she calls “the Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”.

The archetypal extrovert, she posits, is one who’s all action, no contemplation, all risk-taking, no mindfulness, all certainty, no doubt and all quick decisions. “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’,” says Cain. “Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.”

Introversion, she points out, together with sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness, tends to be societally rated somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology, largely because extroversion has become a coercive standard, with in-your-face talkative people rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting and desirable as friends.

As a communications trainer, I’ve watched this develop and, indeed, have profited from it as companies diagnose their quieter employees as in some way troubled or inadequate and in need of reparative coaching. They pitch up in my offices, do the introverts so diagnosed, looking guilty and shamed. Asked to outline their problem, they admit to being slow to contribute in a meeting. They confess to a preference for reflection before voicing their opinions. They out their own inadequacy when it comes to making presentations; they’d rather sit down and explain their thinking as opposed to standing up with a rake of PowerPoint slides.

They are startled and relieved when I suggest all of these “flaws” are merely aspects of their personality, and perfectly valid. And we tend to agree that if pretending to be extrovert is required for survival and promotion in their company of employment, it may be worth their while to learn how to present themselves in the best light, even if the light is based on the assumption that being voluble somehow marks you out as cleverer and more contributory than being quiet.

“Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions — from the theory of evolution to Van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer — came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune into their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there,” says Susan Cain.

She lists as some of those “quiet, cerebral people”, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Frederic Chopin, Marcel Proust, George Orwell, Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss), Steven Spielberg, and JK Rowling. Her thesis is that many of them achieved what they achieved not in spite of their introversion, but, in large measure, because of it.

Yet, almost from birth, the shy, sensitive and less talkative child is regarded as a problem, rather than as perfectly normal. The toddler who doesn’t share activities with others, who prefers to go off in a corner to play with water may provoke the manager of the play group or the nursery school teacher to flag a parent that their offspring is showing troubling signs of being a loner and maybe they should have them tested. Indeed, claims Cain, many of the most important institutions of contemporary life are designed for those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation.

“As children, our classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods, the better to foster group learning, and research suggests that the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert. As adults, many of us work for organisations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value ‘people skills’ above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly. The scientists whose research gets funded often have confident, perhaps overconfident, personalities. The artists whose work adorns the walls of contemporary museums strike impressive poses at gallery openings.”

Even writers, she suggests, having once been accepted and even admired as an isolated reclusive breed, now come under pressure to be part of the marketing plan around their own books. They must be trained for interviews and willing to do the “media tour”, so that gentle introverts like Joe O’Connor and — in other genres — Cathy Kelly and Marion Keyes have to hit the road and be self-deprecatory, charming, anecdotal and faux-extrovert to flog what they’ve written on their own in a situation where quiet is the order of their day.

Susan Cain’s book is a paradox. It challenges the consensual favouring of the extrovert, while offering methods to the introvert allowing them to manage in a world which denigrates the essence of their natural personalities. Inevitably, the message is mixed. On the one hand, she makes it clear the one in three of us who are introverts have a perfect right to our introversion and it may be the resource from which may come great intellectual or artistic prowess. On the other, she acknowledges, even facilitates, the need for some introverts to “pass” as extroverts in a world that’s in love with blather.

“The secret to life,” she writes in the conclusion to the book, “is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”

Quiet is a wonderful, evidenced cry for freedom on behalf of those who prefer the lamplit desk.


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