2013-09-23

Book Review: Quiet

Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking starts out very good. The front end of the book is loaded with the untold story of introverts. They're good at solving complex problems. They make excellent confidantes. They represent as much as half of the world's population. They can be excellent leaders despite their soft-spoken nature. They make excellent teammates with extroverts. There is a lot to like about what Cain has to say about introverts.

Somewhere just before the halfway point, however, Cain's message goes astray. While the ostensible intent of her book, and her research, and her private consulting business, is to promote - and therefore unlock - the power of introverts by helping them understand their strengths and helping extroverts communicate with them better, there comes a point in her book where her message runs off point in a few important ways.

The first is that Cain seems unable to identify the strengths of introverts without coming off as though she's making excuses for them. When she describes them as being successful leaders, she does so by pointing out that they excel at leading teams of extroverts (so, "Who is really doing the work?" becomes a credible criticism of introvert leadership). When she describes introverts as needed a "recharge" after social interaction, she almost pleads for extroverts to understand that introverts aren't antisocial. In short, she spends a lot of time delivering the same excuses that all introverts are mostly comfortable delivering in more effective (less pleading) ways.

The second way Cain's message runs off-point is that, while the first part of the book does an excellent job of clarifying the difference between shy and introverted, the rest of the book seems dedicated only to shy introverts. This problem with the book is close to my heart because I myself am an introvert who is not shy. For people like myself - comfortable in our own skin, but not particularly interested in going "WHIZZ BANG BOOM HEY BUDDY!!!" all the time - Quiet does not have a lot of information to offer. I know what my personal strengths and weaknesses are. I don't need permission from a best-selling author to be myself. I'm already there.

The third point on which Quiet goes astray is that Cain never really sticks to her guns about extroverts. The subtitle of the book refers to a "world that won't stop talking." The implication is that it damn well ought to - sometimes, at least. The appeal in theory of a book like Quiet is that someone actually took the time to lay out the case for those of us who find the prospect of live-as-a-never-ending-series-of-handshakes-and-small-talk simply unappealing, for very good reasons. For example, there is a point at which carrying on with shallow conversations is offensive or insulting - such as a funeral. There is a point during business meetings - typically around the 10-15 minute mark - where all the useful information has been conveyed and entertaining the further ramblings of the most gregarious people on the project team causes real damage to the work plan. There are times in our life when we need true emotional support and empathy, not just a slap on the back and a night out "to forget about it."

In short, the extrovert's toolbox is insufficient to provide all the different types of human interaction we need in our communities and social groups. While Cain dedicates some of her book to highlighting this fact, she stops far short of explaining that if the introvert's toolbox is getting drowned out in a sickening chorus of go-nowhere small talk and cheesy stories, a given group of people might run into serious problems. Hence, the message we want to read from Quiet is not simply that it's okay to be an introvert or that extroverts should understand us better. What we want to read is that extroverts sometimes need to STFU. Now. Their over-bearing dominance of every conversation, their dedication to the most shallow and uninteresting aspects of any topic of conversation, their loudness and situational selfishness has the power to destroy. It doesn't always happen. It doesn't even usually happen. It just frequently happens, and extroverts need to know that.

But Cain minces words.

The final shortcoming of the book appears in an appendix. Once the reader has finished the meat of the book, one finds a series of notes, citations, and afterwords that seem optional. It was lucky that I took the time to read them, because one important section clarifies that Cain did not actually write the book about introverts at all. Instead, she wrote the book about people who are meek, quiet, shy, and egg-headed. In other words, Cain wrote about people like herself.

This very important fact sheds light on much of what I found objectionable in the book. Cain minces words about extroverts because she herself admires them. Cain focuses on shy introverts because she herself is shy. Cain makes pleading excuses for introverts because she wants desperately for extroverts to like them better. The book isn't about introverts, it's about Cain.

Thus, what could have been an excellent book making the case for the strong, silent type ended up being palsied appeal to the world of extroverts, begging them to be more accepting of those who are shy to a fault.