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Pandabook Club #4: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

By Petra Gönczi | May 2021

Our April book for the Pandabook Club was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Pandable is a balanced team of introverts and extroverts alike (all with a profound interest in personality psychology) so we enjoyed this adventure. Cain took us on a crucial journey, helping us to truly understand who introverted people are, and why it’s so important to both read and talk about this subject.

The Extrovert Ideal… [is] a value system [with] the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favours quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socialises in groups. 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”. 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 — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of the trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.

These descriptions from Susan Cain can be taken as the quintessence of the book, which hinges around what it means to be introverted and how the world perceives this personality type (often in contrast with extroverts). This book is definitely a love letter to and for introverted people, but it is not an argument against the extroverted. Cain, being an introvert herself, and believing that introverted people are not valued enough today (in the age of the Extrovert Ideal or the Culture of Personality that replaced the Culture of Character), transparently pushes the case for introverts and tries — and succeeds — to show us why.

🕹️ Our contemporary life is not designed for introverts

Cain refers to many academic resources to support her own research. One being Carl Jung’s book, Psychological Types, which was published in 1921. Jung's book popularised the terms 'introvert' and 'extrovert', and as we learn from reading Quiet, since 1921, practically every school of personality psychology approached these terms slightly differently but mostly keeping the main points:

Introverts are drawn to their inner world, extroverts to the external world. Introverts focus on the meaning of events (they contemplate: ‘what if?’), extroverts jump into those events (they ask themselves: ‘what is?’). Introverts like to recharge alone, extroverts’ batteries go off if they don’t socialise enough. In essence, these differences put their mark on how each group leads their personal and work life, from spending free time to presenting their ideas at the office.

Living under that Extrovert Ideal, many introverts find themselves conflicted in this contemporary life. Forced to do teamwork all the time, Cain refers to this as the ‘New Groupthink’ (even though years of research shows that conventional brainstorming doesn’t work) and working from open offices (which can easily reduce productivity, even for extroverts). Yet, we still cling to these ideals.

The author suggests that teams with a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts can actually work wonderfully but we have to pay attention to the balance as well as how the team will operate together. Collaboration doesn’t always have to be face-to-face (which most introverts often resist, if possible) and the number of events that focus on ideas sharing can truly be less frequent when work life is organised well.

The bias against introverts (supposedly lacking “people skills”) can be psychologically triggering for many, with memories of parents calling them shy, teachers saying they need to come out of their shell. As an adult, they can still feel guilt for simply denying an invitation to a meeting or for a coffee. As the outer world says, introverted people are “in their head too much” — Cain proposes that this is true in a sense but we should take another perspective here, too. Yes, introverts are in their head a lot, because they are true thinkers and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Cain suggests that everyone should be given their optimal level of arousal, meaning that everyone has their sweet spot, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. The goal here is, simply, not to forget about the first group amongst all the noise that energises the latter.

▶️ ◀️ Extroverted West, introverted Asia

Cain takes a cultural approach to these personalities, too, finding a more introverted East, particularly Asia, and a more introverted West, particularly America. From proverbs to valuing personalities, there seems to be a significant gap in the subject of introverted and extroverted personalities between the two “ends of the world”. What an American might see as subordination is valued as showing respect in Asia — one of many examples.

She also lines up a series of real-life stories from Asian-American students struggling to live in both worlds at the same time, trying to meet all the requirements of their Asian-origin families and their American schools. They all say they have a hard time but do their best to persevere – a trait that is positively associated with most introverts.

Nevertheless, this shows that schools, just like our workplaces, are mostly built for the extroverts and would need a reform of their own. Simply labelling a child as ‘shy’ and assuming they might not ‘make it’ in the world is an ignorant and hurtful passport to give them, as well as a big dose of concern for their parents when nothing is actually wrong. Being different, as we have learned countless times, is just different, not worse.

🟢 🟩 Turning an introvert into an extrovert?

Cain offers some insight into how introverts can act like extroverts, or in a more extroverted way than their authentic self in certain situations. Many of the introverts interviewed in the book said they might be required to adopt that personality shift, especially at work, and they’re ok with it. The problem arises when it becomes an expected norm for introverts to constantly be able to ‘perform’ as an extrovert, and are not allowed the time to decompress. A big client meeting with tough negotiations can be all right in the morning if an introvert has had forewarning, time to prepare and is allowed to plan the rest of his or her day — which might include going home earlier to recharge alone and re-energise for the next day again.

Despite popular beliefs, Cain explores how introverts can be successful negotiators or wonderful public speakers. She also digs deeper into the subject of leadership in the book, with introverted Harvard students trying to find their way in the maze of an Ivy League school that has been determined to bring (extroverted) leaders into the world. Cain also looks at the biological background of being an introvert and its possible evolutionary aspects. The author also dedicates a full chapter to introverted kids and offers advice to parents who are raising them, which can be especially useful if they are extroverted themselves.

Quiet is certainly an extensively researched, well-presented take on the power of introverts. If you are interested in introversion and extroversion, no matter which is closer to your personality, you will like it.

Our team at Pandable certainly loved this book and we are happy to recommend it to you all, as we firmly believe that introversion is not ‘something to be cured’ or ‘changed’ but is to be celebrated equally alongside being extroverted. The goal is not to leave anyone out of the party and for that party to be organised in a way that accommodates the sweet spots for both personality types. Read the book. It’s not impossible, and it’s worth it, we promise.

Our Pandabook for May: Remote - Office Not Required by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried