For All You Thinkers Out There

Last weekend, as hordes of marathon runners went by my window and a boisterous crowd cheered them on, I was reading a book about quiet.

For anyone who even slightly identifies with being an introvert, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking will be a revelation and a relief. Ever bemoaned the fact that people who talk the most get the most respect? Wished for a more private workspace so you could get important work done? Felt that collaboration killed creativity? Has Cain got some proof for you!

First, let’s be clear that introverts aren’t people who hide from the world. According to Cain, introverts “may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas.” Check, check and check. To me, quiet people aren’t necessarily shy – they’re just more about meaning than volume.

If that sounds like you, then how about this? Cain has a 10-point manifesto for introverts that includes “#7 – It’s OK to cross the street to avoid making small talk.” Well, phew, because I do that all the time. (Should I be admitting that?)

Cain also delves into the quiet person’s compulsion to act more social than they feel. Is it fake to turn it up a few notches in your work environment or at a party? She explores the idea with psychology professor Brian Little, who feels there is nothing wrong with behaving like an extrovert in certain situations: “He views self-monitoring as an act of modesty. It’s about accommodating oneself to situational norms, rather than ‘grinding down everything to one’s own needs and concerns.’” As long as you’re still giving yourself time and space for the things that really matter to you, there’s room for a little pretend extroversion.

What about the fear of public speaking, which Cain worked hard to get over? Extroverts feel it too, and it may be a primal human reaction:

One theory, based on the writings of the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, holds that when our ancestors lived on the savannah, being watched intently meant only one thing: a wild animal was stalking us. And when we think we’re about to be eaten, do we stand tall and hold forth confidently? No. We run. In other words, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution urge us to get the hell off the stage, where we can mistake the gaze of the spectators for the glint in the predator’s eye.

Cain’s point throughout the book is that there’s no need for thoughtful people to feel hunted by our extroverted culture. And she makes her point beautifully. Her sharp, clear writing reminds me why words are my favourite thing in the world. (My partner likes to joke that I like books more than I like him. That’s not true . . . they’re totally different.) Sitting down with Quiet is like having a long, satisfying talk with a smart friend. Just add pajamas.

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