The Value of Quiet in a Loudmouth World

Rethinking introversion as an asset

January 21, 2012

Author Susan Cain
Author Susan Cain

One out of every two or three Americans is an introvert, said Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain addressed a crowd of roughly 300 people on January 21 at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, where she noted that many people in the US hide their introversion because we see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—“bold, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”

Cain began her professional career as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street but quickly realized that she possessed none of those traits. As a lawyer, she often used a constructive tone and thoroughly prepared for negotiations, types of approaches, she said, that were very different from other attorneys she knew. But those skills proved valuable—particularly because they were different.

Initially, Cain thought her mild-mannered demeanor had to do with being a woman, but the closer she looked, the more she saw that it was a byproduct of individual temperament. Introverts get better grades in school and know more about a wide range of topics, but they’re no more intelligent or have higher IQs than extroverts, she said. Instead, it’s a behavioral difference, especially one that involves the ability to work alone. She cited Charles Darwin, who, as part of his research, compared the veins of various leaves. “What extrovert would do that?” she said to a giggling room.

Cain noted that introverts and extroverts are also present in the animal kingdom, primarily to help the species survive. Fruit flies have “sitters” and “rovers,” and researchers have also found that pumpkinseed fish exhibit similar personality types in which extroverted fish race toward traps and introverted ones have been impossible to catch.

Aside from having an intellectual advantage, introverts also have advantages in creativity and risk management, Cain said. With risk management, “Extroverts will seize the day, and introverts will be the ones to make sure there’s a day left to seize.” Warren Buffet, she said, is a good example of this because he takes risks but does so in careful, calculated ways. In terms of creativity, she said that Dr. Seuss found inspiration for his whimsical stories and characters when he was alone. “Solitude is an important catalyst toward creativity,” Cain said.

The three ideas Cain said she wanted to convey are that (1) we need to call for a world with peace and quiet; (2) we need to cultivate the talents of children who are introverts so they know it’s okay to be different; and (3) introverts and extroverts need each other.

For educators, Cain encouraged a balance between individual projects and group work. When there is group work, she suggested the groups be small and well managed, with each member given a specific role. For managers who are frustrated with the lack of participation from introverted employees, Cain suggested they give advance notice of meetings, make agendas available ahead of time, and revisit points at the end of a meeting and ask colleagues for input (or have them follow up with written comments afterward).

Introversion, Cain said, “is not antisocial; it’s a different social.”