Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: Quiet

 Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain is one of those books that I wish I had written.  Page for page, I can't remember the last time I nodded, gasped or exclaimed in agreement and recognition of a nonfiction author's observations; observations that seem so obvious and common sense, but I had never seen articulated before.  I've known I was an introvert for, well, forever, and I've also always intuitively known that fitting into the world was harder for me than for others.  Self-fulfilling prophecy? No, now I think it is the Extrovert Ideal of our culture working itself out.  How many times have I been told to get a thicker skin, not to take things personally, be tougher, more assertive... and how many more times than that I could, again intuitively, tell that someone was thinking that in my direction.  Here, finally, is some positive reinforcement for those of us who have to mentally arm ourselves for the sensory assault of going out into the world and come home exhausted every day; we are actually important to the smooth functioning of society, whether or not society sees it that way.  Just give us our personal space, respect our need for down-time to recharge the batteries, and whatever you do, don't put us in an open office plan and subject us to endless interruptions, multitasking and meetings.

Cain visits such extrovert-only environments as Harvard Business School, Tony Robbins seminars, and Rick Warren's Saddleback Church to explore the extent of modern America's culture of extroversion.  It wasn't always this way; in the early days of this country, much more emphasis was placed on character, and many presidents were introverted.  It's hard to imagine that happening now.

She explores the complementary relationship (albeit deeply strained) between FDR the extrovert and Eleanor the introvert, Eleanor serving as moral compass to Franklin's energy.  In the same way, Rosa Parks was the quiet strength behind the Civil Rights movement energetically led by Martin Luther King (whom Cain assumes to be extroverted, although I've read differing opinions on that).  The unique difficulties of relationships between sometimes conflicting personalities are explored briefly.  Then she goes into the science behind the differences in the brains of introverts and extroverts.  This is fascinating information, some of it very new neuroscience.  I suspect her spot on the political spectrum is further left than I'm used to, judging by her examples (Darwin, Gandhi, Al Gore(?)) and the evolutionary assumptions underlying her scientific explanations.  I still think learning about the neocortex and the amygdala is a valuable exercise.  So it's the "fight or flight reaction" I'm experiencing every weekday when I walk into the boisterous 8th grade class.  Good to know, I guess, and it explains why I feel compelled to advocate for the concerns of my introverted students, who are in danger of being overlooked.

I really appreciated the final chapter on education and introverted children, and I believe all teachers should read it.  Our current system is heavily weighted toward group activities, which favor extroverts and leave no time for the quiet individual practice (10,000 hours to achieve excellence) and deep thought needed to perfect a skill.  In addition, the pushiest of extroverts tend to take over a group, introverts shut down rather than participate, and are left feeling there is something wrong with them, when they make up anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population.  I also really liked her brief historical survey at the very end of the book; attitudes toward introversion and extroversion through the ages.  Jacob and Esau; the four "humors" (melancholy and phlegmatic being the introverted ones); Milton's Il Penseroso as opposed to L'Allegro.

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