Thursday, September 20, 2012

Book Review Friday: Quiet--The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

I feel like I've been on a crusade for years to educate people about introverts (otherwise known as "my people!").  As Susan Cain points out in her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, it's an extrovert's world out there in America--even though introverts make up 33-50 % of it (depending on which study you follow).  Cain writes, "We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal--the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight."  Speaking from experience, I can say that it's tough to be an introvert in the loud, boisterous world of the United States and I constantly have to explain to people what the word really means.

A lot of people still believe that introverts are "people haters."  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Cain writes, "Probably the most common--and damaging--misunderstanding about personality type is that introverts are antisocial and extroverts are pro-social.  But...neither formulation is correct; introverts and extroverts are differently social."  With their capacity to bring focus and depth to relationships, introverts make great friends.  They might be slow to warm up at first, but once they commit, they commit!  At work, they might not have the loudest voice, but they are usually the most prepared people in the room and have carefully thought out their ideas from multiple angles.  But it's easy to dismiss introverts, because they are quiet and slow to draw attention to themselves.  There are times when loud and gregarious is what is needed in a situation.  But we already know that.  Extroverts are already revered in our culture.  It's high time to recognize there is also a time for "quiet strength" (also the title of a biography about Rosa Parks).  And that's just what Susan Cain's book does.

Cain traces the origins of the Extrovert Ideal in America and fascinatingly contrasts it with Asian countries and cultures which have more of an Introvert Ideal.  It's fascinating to think about how cultural standards figure in such matters as politics, particularly as we look ahead to our Presidential election in November.  From observation, it seems to me that both President Obama and Governor Romney exhibit some pretty classic introvert traits.  Is this a weakness?  Or could it, in certain ways, be a strength?  Cain makes the observation that "people followed Moses because his words were thoughtful, not because he spoke them well."

As a side note, Cain briefly references the problem of choosing pastors based on extroversion and charisma alone.  She writes, "evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership, sometimes explicitly."  As a young pastor, I often felt pressure to change my basic personality and become more extroverted.  I could play at extroversion for a short time, but it left me exhausted long-term.  I wanted to spend hours in my office thinking through mission plans and curriculum and studying for sermons.  Trying to do youth work in the traditional way was exhausting.  I had never enjoyed or been good at the "rah-rah-rah!" youth activities when I was a youth!  What would magically make me good at these things now?  I did have a lot of interest in doing a youth ministry that was focused on discipleship and depth, so when I got the chance to revamp the confirmation program and introduce some really substantive material, I got super excited.  The structure of the program came me a great outlet to teach and get to know the kids in my class.  But water slides and sports games?  Those were tough to even contemplate.  In other areas of ministry, I found it hard to visit people and console them if I didn't know them well.  My words felt so generic and lifeless without a personal relationship with people in difficult circumstances.  And how could I know what would best comfort them unless I knew them?  But knowing people (really knowing them) takes time.  It doesn't happen overnight.  There are some great ways for introverts to lead in a church setting but it depends on a big part of the congregation understanding the differences in how God gifts each member of His body.

Cain wisely writes, "Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton, no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer.  We might call this the 'rubber band theory' of personality.  We are like rubber bands at rest.  We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so much."  If I interview for a ministry position again, I think it would behoove me to explain my personality type and the "rubber band theory" to a call committee.  Cain writes that we can stretch ourselves far outside our comfort zone in a job successfully if we are doing it for deeply help values or goals.  However, if we do that much stretching, we must build in regular "restorative niches" so that we don't burn out.  These niches are quiet time apart from the demands of job and the stretching of our personalities.  These times must be guarded and protected.

The light bulb moment for me in reading Susan Cain's book is that introversion is not just where we get our energy (from lots of interaction with people or from time alone), but why we get our energy that way.  Extroverts have a high need for lots of stimulation.  They like being in noisier, busier environments.  They are the life of the party and need to be where the party is happening.  They like risks, too.  Having too little stimulation will de-energize them.  Introverts, on the other hand, need far less stimulation.  Not no stimulation; just less.  This means that introverts do indeed get lonely.  They need friends and socializing too.  They enjoy people.  They just need less of this stimulation than extroverts do.  And keep in mind, the stimulation is not only about people.  Busy, loud environments are great to extroverts.  Introverts quickly begin to feel overwhelmed in such places.  That's why open office plans can be so de-energizing for introverts, while extroverts might thrive on them.

As I was reading this book, I took a trip with my husband and Burrito to a busy family fun center, full of loud flashing video game machines, bouncy houses, laser tag, bright colors, and blaring sounds.  I sat down and watched my extroverted family members eating it up while I noticed my own reactions: overwhelmed, exhausted, overstimulated.  I felt like I needed a nap after our visit.  Had we gone instead to a playground where they might be plenty of children but perhaps another mom to chat with and focus on and lovely nature sounds, I think I would have enjoyed myself far more.  I stayed because I love my family and want them to have fun.  But it wasn't so very fun for me.

Within the same month, I went to a local church that has had great success attracting young families and young people, a church whose excellent teaching I have enjoyed on the radio.  Fresh from reading Quiet, however, I noticed that despite this church's excellent track record and focus on the Gospel, there were a few things that might be off-putting about the church to a more introverted group.  The music was so loud, it literally made my stomach hurt.  The loudness and over-stimulation were overwhelming and made it much harder for me to focus on the excellent Bible teaching that was being presented.  Could this be something for mega-churches to consider?  While they offer a chance for an introvert to "get lost in the crowd" and just focus in, sometimes the over-stimulation can get in the way of the message.  Could there perhaps be a middle ground where the extroverts feel sufficiently stimulated by the environment to stay focused while the introverts are not too overwhelmed?  Food for thought.

Overall, I found this book immensely helpful and informative in understanding my personality better and in being better able to explain it to others.  I found insights for how to use my personality in relationship with my extroverted family members and friends and to better understand where they are coming from.  There were insights for the workplace, for church, for marriage, for parenting, and for friendships.  Both extroverts and introverts would benefit from this book.

I have two areas of critique.  The first is that for those who interpret the Bible literally (as I do), the references to evolution in the development of the different personality types might be a bit annoying.  My advice: just ignore that part and take from the book what you can.  The second critique is that at times the book becomes bogged down in detailed and sometimes confusing research.  Don't give up on it, though.  There is a lot of good information here even in the midst of all the data.

4 stars out of 5.  Recommended.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Crown Publishers.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Interesting post! I love the "rubberband" theory. I feel that while naturally an introvert, because of the center stage aspect of my MOPS position, most people think I am an extrovert. If only they knew that I come home and need a day and a half, minimum, to recover. I love to do it when I am in the moment and have learned to be that person, but coffee with a couple friends recharges my batteries much more than "showing off" on front of a crowd ever will.

  2. Interesting insight about how our culture misinterprets a person's social skills as their level of introversion. Part of my job is to talk to and meet with groups of strangers regularly, so people assume I am an extrovert. I ran a marketing event for the office last weekend, and probably met 2,000 people in 3 days. I am still exhausted 5 days later, but because I'm capable of meeting that many people without a lot of awkwardness, people think it's my natural personality. They don't realize that the part of my job that's most natural to me is planning those events, or working with people individually. I can handle groups because my parents were intentional about teaching me how - that's a social skill, not a personality trait.

  3. This is an excellent post Rebecca, and much food for thought too. Americans, to the outside world, seem to be extrovert, an extrovert culture that is about the dominant and the gregarious, the highly ambitious and the go-getting, but I suspect that there are many Americans who are deeply introvert too; such is human nature and human society. I went to university and there were a number of Americans on my course (it was around the time of 9/11 incidentally) and there were some whose voices I never heard; they never said a word in the classes, even the tutorials were students are marked for their input. I never stopped talking myself, but there you go!

    I have my own views on extrovert and introvert; I think often they are inconvenient and misleading tags, another way for human beings to label someone and then dismiss them because they are different from us. The city I grew up in England is known nationwide as very extrovert, a lively city full of cheeky people who say what they think. Yet for that, there are many people here who are quiet, humble, less outgoing and so on.

    My own personal testimony on this is that at times throughout my life I have been extrovert and at other times I have been introvert. I was in effect a different person at different times. Now I am probably the thoughtful introvert type but with mates I can be loud and and have a laugh and a joke with the best of them! What does that make me; introvert, extrovert? I really don't know to be honest. We are not labels in effect, we are complex human beings with needs; sometimes we need to be loud, and other times we need to be quiet. Neither one is better or worse, they are just different.


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