In Praise of Introverts: Susan Cain’s Quiet

quietcover

It wasn’t until I read this book that I realized I am a classic introvert.  I dislike meeting new people.  I find groups of more than four people challenging, and crowds unbearable.  I hate loud noise.  I prefer to socialize once a week and sometimes even less often, with only one or two people at a time.  Even this amount of “socializing” exhausts me.   I have always hated pointless chit-chat, and find it difficult to talk at all.  This difficulty increases exponentially with people I don’t know and in groups.  Especially in groups, I feel disembodied and paralyzed, as though I don’t have a tongue.

If you don’t know me very well, and have heard me talking, it is the result of years of practice.

The positives: I am happy when alone.  I am content to spend large amounts of time by myself, working on various projects.  I have never found it difficult to become absorbed in detailed labor of various sorts–studying, practicing a musical instrument, writing–for hours on end.  I have never been susceptible to peer pressure.  I am extremely susceptible to pain and depression, but also to the enjoyment of nature, music, and beauty.

Being an introvert never held me back in the small pond of my hometown.  Because I was academically talented, I stood out.  Some adults even admired me for being so quiet, and encouraged the tendency.  In particular, I remember a youth pastor who recommended me for a summer leadership camp, saying, “Quiet rivers run deep.”

So in college, it was traumatic when I was expected to be the complete opposite of everything that I am.  The crowded, noisy freshman dining hall overwhelmed me.  I sat by myself in the darkest corners I could find, missing opportunities to make friends.  I thought I would adapt better to orchestra.  In high school, orchestra been a life-saver, allowing me to find other like-minded teenagers.  They were also misfits who loved books and classical music, and they remain some of my best friends to this day.

College orchestra, it turned out, was mainly an opportunity to drink and party, with a little music thrown in on the side.  I eventually dared to set foot in one of the parties for about five minutes, but quickly fled from the horror of bodies squished together in the dark and ear-splitting music.

I started to believe that something was fundamentally wrong with me.  In class, I sat in silence.  The loudest, flashiest students, never afraid to open their mouths, earned praise and support, snapping up opportunities and fellowships at every turn.

Those hellish four years are the reason I’m so glad I picked up Susan Cain’s book Quiet.  Usually I am skeptical of light non-fiction, thin volumes with a self-helpy tone and a little science thrown in.  But the subtitle caught my eye.  The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.  By then I had started to realize that American culture values people with “personality”: being loud, outgoing, and talkative, even if you don’t have much to say.  I remember seeing an episode of America’s Next Top Model where Tyra Banks dismissed a girl because she was quiet.  She did well in her photoshoots and had a lovely face, but she didn’t talk much.  According to Tyra, that meant she “didn’t have a personality.”  That really bothered me.  Being quiet was her personality.

When I finally picked up a copy of Quiet, I recognized myself instantly.  Though I had started to suspect it, I never labeled myself as an introvert before.  Rather than finding that word limiting, it helped me to embrace my quiet side.  I liked being alone, and that was okay.  The thing I most loved about Quiet was how Susan Cain interprets introversion not as a liability, but as an asset.  She listed numerous scientists, musicians, and writers who achieved what they did not despite their introversion, but because of it.  Introverts are tuned in to their inner life.  They are observant–a key attribute for scientists and writers.  Because they don’t need to socialize constantly, they are able to focus on their work for long stretches of time.

I am so grateful to Susan Cain for writing a book about the positive aspects of introversion.  Now, when I go to a concert alone, or spend a lot of time writing, I don’t think of it as weird, but as a central aspect of my personality.  I am better able to enjoy the rich inner life that comes with being an introvert–the intense engagement with books, music, and ideas; the enjoyment of silence; the close relationships with just a few friends. In this noisy world, which has only gotten more chatty with the rise of the Internet, Susan Cain’s work is a much-needed message.

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