Author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
For a long time, I wondered if I was an introvert or an extrovert. I liked to read and write and didn’t mind being alone, but I also enjoyed spending time with friends. For some reason, I assumed that “introverted” meant “hermitic” or “antisocial.” Furthermore, there were plenty of times in my days teaching English when I couldn’t wait to discuss a particular poem or novel, or help students think more deeply about a recent event in the news. I left those classroom discussions feeling excited and energized. Surely, I couldn’t be called an introvert if I was this good at socialization.
It wasn’t until I started reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, that I understood why I had been so confused. In a society where extroversion is the ideal, it’s common for introverts like me to pretend that extroversion comes naturally. We’ve been taught that it’s shameful to require too much quiet and solitude—possibly even dangerous. The more I thought about my experiences teaching, the more I remembered the hectic afternoons of my early career when I could barely catch a breath, when I left the classroom at the end of the day and was bombarded by a pounding headache. The part I actually liked most about my job was the reading, studying, and preparing to present, not the actual presentation. I was also uncomfortable being front and center in the classroom for such a long time, hour after hour. I arranged the desks in a circle and sat alongside my students in an effort to let go of the reins a little bit, so I could feel less like a dominant speaker and more like a behind-the-scenes manager.
Looking back now, I realize that these introverted traits helped me become a good English teacher. But they’re probably also what led me to becoming a Quaker. After a quiet hour in Quaker meeting, I felt happy and renewed, especially when so many of my days were filled with the loud and boisterous halls of a high school. In the meetinghouse, I was grateful to be part of a unique community that, contrary to the norm, valued silence and stillness.
This is perhaps why Susan Cain’s book has had such a profound effect on me and many other introverts who feel entitled to a more positive definition of ourselves. Recently, I talked with Susan about her book, the topic of introversion, and what she hopes will be the next step in acknowledging the quiet power of our introverts.
Are you surprised by the reception your book has gotten, or did you expect that people would be this enthusiastic to extol the virtues of introverts?
A reception of this magnitude is always going to be surprising—and thrilling! But I shouldn’t have been so surprised, because I know how many introverts are out there (half the population, according to the most recent study) and how deeply they’ve been made to feel flawed. Quiet is a permission slip for introverts to be themselves.
The reason I was so interested in talking with you is not just because your book speaks to my personal journey of discovering that I’m an introvert, but also because I think the topics you raise are of particular interest to the Quaker community. Quakers enjoy quiet and solitude more than other denominations and are often less likely to evangelize. Some might consider us aloof and unwelcoming. Did you discover these or other misconceptions as you were writing and publicizing your book?
Oh, yes. In my publicity tour, I’ve found that people often seem surprised to find that I’m friendly and can hold a conversation. They assume that someone who enjoys quiet and solitude must also be cold and misanthropic! This is probably the number one misconception of introverts. But introverts are not antisocial—they’re just differently social.
After writing this book and meeting so many introverts, how would you redefine an introvert to someone who might be ashamed of having this predisposition?
Introverts are thoughtful, reflective, and creative, and without them, the world would be devoid of many of its greatest gifts, from Einstein’s theory of relativity to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. As the science writer Winifred Gallagher writes, “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”
I saw in an interview that you said texting might be so much more popular opposed to phone conversations nowadays because many people are closet introverts, and interacting through messages is more comfortable for them. Yet as an introvert myself, I am very concerned with privacy. I don’t want technology to reveal my demographic information (like location), the same way I don’t want strangers to hear my phone or dinner conversations. What have been your observations about the way introverts handle new media and technology?
I think you’re right that introverts are more concerned with privacy and less interested in the relentless self-presentation of many online social platforms. But I’ve also seen many introverts using social media as a way to connect with others and share their ideas without actually having to leave the house! For introverts who are uncomfortable with the whole thing, I urge them to view social media as a means of self-expression rather than self-promotion—a subtle yet powerful difference.
As a parent, I found the parts of your book about cultivating a quiet child’s strengths particularly helpful. Do you think our culture’s emphasis on “helicopter parenting” helps or hurts our child-introverts?
It can work both ways. Helicopter parenting can produce parents who are attuned and sensitive to their child’s personality, or parents who are so concerned that their child is not gregarious enough that they’re constantly prodding them to get out there and be more social. If you’re reading this and have an introverted child, please do read the chapter in Quiet on how to cultivate these kids—it is so important. If there’s one reason I wrote the book, it’s to improve the lives of the next generation of quiet children.
It’s easy after reading this book to start holding introverts up as the ideal, but what you point out is that our society needs both extroverts and introverts to function effectively. What do you hope will happen as people continue the discussion your book has started?
I hope people will truly come to see introverts and extroverts as yin and yang—the two types need each other. When we first started talking about women’s rights, there was a temptation to put down men. I think that moment has passed, and now people are truly concerned with equality and a level playing field for both genders. Same thing goes for introverts and extroverts.
Are there prominent figures that you suspect hide their introversion? For instance, I am convinced Barack Obama is an introvert, and that his reluctance to talk about accomplishments makes people assume he doesn’t have any.
Oh yes. After I spoke at the TED conference, which is attended by CEOs, founders, and other prominent types, many approached me afterwards to talk about their own struggles as closet introverts. And I agree with you about President Obama.
There’s so much discussion in the media about improving public education. I was a teacher in both high school and college, and what I realized after reading your book was how much I relied on participation, group projects, and discussions at the expense of quiet, independent time. I let the extrovert ideal take over in the classroom because I thought it meant I was preparing students for the world. You give some pointers for educators in Chapter 11 of your book, but what might you suggest in terms of honoring our introverts when it comes to national education reform?
Less group work! Many teachers tell me that they are required by their districts or evaluators to do more group work than they’re comfortable with. I think that some group work is a good idea, as long as it’s structured properly (small groups where each child has a distinct role that suits him or her). But we do way too much of it.
Thanks so much, Susan!
Thank you, Jana.
FUN FACT: Here in the Friends Journal office, we all took Susan Cain’s Quiet Quiz to discover how many of us would be considered introverts according to her definition. Out of 14 of us (including full-time and part-time staff, two interns and one volunteer), 11 are introverts (a whopping 78 percent!) and 3 are “ambiverts,” which is the term for an equal combination of traits. No one identified as an extrovert. Our Facebook poll on the Friends Journal page showed a similar introvert majority.