Monday, June 17, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Susan Cain)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain
Read: 4 March to 17 March 2013
3 / 5 stars

Like the friend whose brutal honesty is never immediately welcome but reveals its necessary truths the more you bitterly and obsessively try to prove her wrong (in your head, of course, always in your head because no one else understands, damnit), this book made me confront things about myself that I always kind of knew but glossed over with conciliatory explanations.

I am, according to the battery of Myers-Briggs tests that Dr. Internet has administered to me (and that offer the same result no matter how cleverly I think I've outsmarted the aforementioned countless variations of personality assessments), of the INFP persuasion, just like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath were presumed to be, along with many other notable people who haven't killed themselves (like Tim Burton, Billy Shakes and Albert Camus). All sources stress that it's one of the rarer personality types, which at least begins to explain why I feel so interminably weird compared to other people all the time.

But I think my introversion also comes with a tinge of self-loathing, for as much as I dislike the idea of being around crowds of people to the extent that I always took those commercials advertising a pill to treat social anxiety as a personal attack on my personality, my stuttering, socially awkward self who identifies with the fictional characters and real ideas populating book after book better than the world beyond my front door is also maddeningly, desperately eager to be the center of attention. Not that I always know what to do with that attention once I get it, as it's fun for about five minutes before the urge to dive for solitary cover re-assumes control. And I think I tend to resent well-adjusted introverts a little for their totally-alien-to-me experience of being comfortable in their own skins.

Which brings us to my biggest problem with this book: The author was entirely too present in this study on introverts. I know, I know: My reviews have gotten to be so totally about me that I feel like a hypocritical dick lobbing such a complaint at this presumably well-meaning book. When I read This is Your Brain on Music, I got so pissed off at the reviewers who complained similarly about how Levitin frequently drew on his own experiences because, c'mon, personal experience counts for something while lending a sense of credibility to the research conducted and the conclusions made: The difference, I think, is that Levitin used himself to bring a high-minded concept down to understandable terms for those of us lacking scientific minds whereas Cain sometimes seemed like she just wanted to talk about herself. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but that would have made a better blog than a book. By falling back on her own brand of introversion, it felt like she was both negating the argument that the personality type expresses itself in an inexhaustibly many ways and also even alienating other expressions of introversion to a degree.

Actually, I wasn't always crazy about the kind of people Cain used as examples of introverts who were able to overcome their crippling shyness or need to be alone (because shyness isn't always an introvert-specific trait, as this book did teach me) to function -- nay, thrive -- in the vast, sometimes overwhelming world beyond their rich inner landscapes. I mean, for a book subtitled "The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," it would make sense to use Harvard Business School students, Ivy League professors, academic whiz kids on the cusp of high school and everything after, neuroscientists and Wall Street investors (to name a few) to illustrate the victories that can arise from harnessing one's naturally unassuming, slow-to-action instincts and applying them to real-world scenarios. And that was reassuring and motivating and helpful, sure, but what would have been a little more helpful is seeing how an everyday introvert with a quiet job and a simple existence confronts life's obstacles when confrontation does not come easy.

(And, yes, there is a whole section on the ordinary workplace and how open floor plans and the elimination of boundaries and this emphasis on group work and collective brainstorming that are all so in vogue really aren't all that conducive to brilliance and happiness and cohesion and all that. But that was more of an academically detached observation than a personal reality.)

I really didn't hate this book. Really. I didn't love it but it did force some personal insight on me that I've probably been needing to hear. Like how facing down one's own unique hell, like public speaking (which, hi, have I mentioned that I stutter?), isn't, like, fatal and is worth overcoming. And that just because the Western ideal favors extroverted characteristics doesn't mean it's better -- and that, in fact, a lot of how I approach the world (I'd rather not talk unless I have something worthwhile to say; I don't want to assert myself at the risk of disrespecting the greater whole) is mirrored in the traditionally Eastern approach. That the person speaking the most or first or loudest is rarely offering the best ideas, as a facade of overconfidence often hides an array of interior doubts. That knowing to pick one's battles and proceeding with a quiet assurance is a strength in its own right.

The penultimate chapter was nothing but an exploration of how extro- and introverts complement each other and how the two seemingly at-odds personality types can look inward to identify their outwardly differing approaches to the world. As most people are not like me, it did offer some perspective shifts that I found to be genuinely helpful wisdom in terms of how my perception of myself and others doesn't always align with what they either see or know to be true. For one glorious moment, it even seemed like Cain was talking directly to me in addressing the way that the real-life introverted wife of an extroverted man tended to emotionally distance herself from an argument, as she thought she was keeping herself in check while he thought she was shutting him out, which is a difference in interpretation that never even crossed my conflicted mind.

I had perused the table of contents before reading even a word of this book and actually groaned when I saw that the final chapter explores "how to cultivate quiet kids in a world that can't hear them," which I figured would read like a laundry list of all the ways my parents failed me. And, I mean, it did, of course, but after recovering from bursting into tears almost immediately at the beginning of the chapter (because, man, was it ever hitting too close to home), I realized that it was only ostensibly advice for nurturing introverted children so they can happily grow into their places in an ill-fitting world: It was really, truly a comforting pat on the back that reached into the past to assure my inner child (the part of it that isn't a perverted little teenage boy, anyway) that she was never as alone and misunderstood as she felt. And if this book had more of those moments, I might have actually wound up loving it.

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