Book Club, Week 1: Chapter 1 of Quiet by Susan Cain

October 15, 2012

Susan Cain opens Quiet with the story of Rosa Parks. Like Cain, I too always pictured Parks as a brassy, bold person, both in demeanor and physical stature. But Cain writes:

[Obituaries written after her death] said she was “timid and shy” but had “the courage of a lion.” They were full of phrases like “radical humility” and “quiet fortitude.”

On the very next page, she draws a contrast with our modern cultural ideals — what she later dubs as the Culture of Personality.

Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts.

That leads me to my first question for all of you: Do you feel a societal pressure to be bold and sociable? If so, what does that look like? I’m also curious about the non-American perspective. If you currently reside in (or hail from) another nation, do you perceive the American ideal as one of extroversion? Is this uniquely American or does it cross over into other cultures?

The Extrovert Ideal

On page four, Cain writes that introversion “is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” This hit home for me. How often has my reticence been misconstrued as something else? How many people told me, especially in my youth, that I should be more talkative and outgoing? How often do I reflect on how I’m too quiet for this or that? As Cain astutely discusses, this becomes a track that plays on repeat in your mind. And yet many of these judgments of introversion are completely inaccurate. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy; as the book explores more in depth in later chapters, they may have strong social skills and enjoy social gatherings.

Have you seen the Extrovert Ideal touted in your family, workplace, or social circles? Do you feel like your quiet tendencies are automatically labeled or received as something else altogether?

From Culture of Character to Culture of Personality

This is easily one of my favorite sections of the entire book, because it gives words to something that I’ve often read about and discussed with others. As I read this, I found myself mourning the loss of the Culture of Character. More than that, I mourned the shift in perception around things like duty and reputation. Several years ago, I read an article about how women are no longer pursuing men of character, and it’s no surprise when traits that were once admired are now seen as irrelevant at best and dull or distasteful at worst. Who wants to be known for having a strong sense of duty when you could be known for being magnetic? Even as someone who assigns a high value to character, I find myself drawn to Dale Carnegie’s guide words. It’s because the Culture of Personality tells me that those are the things I need — those are the things that will attract others and make me successful. As Cain writes:

The Extrovert Ideal is not a modern invention… We can also trade our admiration of extroverts to the Greeks, and to the Romans… [But] the rise of the Culture of Personality intensified such biases.

How do you feel about the cultural shift from character to personality? What are the dangers? The benefits?

Other thoughts

The best part of a book club is hearing from everyone else. So, tell me: In the introduction and first chapter, what grabbed your attention? What new insights did you glean? What didn’t you agree with? What questions did the author raise for you?

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17 comments
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  1. I do feel the pressure to be social, in large part because being un-social leaves my behavior open to wild misinterpretation. As I get older, though, I find I care less and less.

    But I vividly recall moments of the psychic injury Cain refers to. In sixth grade, I was awarded some big honor for academic achievement. But I had to receive it at an event in front of a crowd. I told them to give it to someone else, but they wouldn’t. My extroverted mother dragged me to that podium, apologizing for my embarrassing behavior, while my introverted father stood by and mouthed “I’m sorry.” I don’t know if I said anything but “Thank you.”

    I’ve gradually learned to be quite the faux extrovert when I need to be.

  2. Hi Allie ~

    First, thank you for starting this book club. It will be a fun experiment. I’ve had “Quiet” on my bookshelf for about six months so this is the perfect incentive to read it.

    I learned something new already… I think I’m an “ambivert!” I’m also an INFJ but the I and E score close together. The downside of this is that I often feel like I have two personalities or two voices in my head – one that really enjoys social engagements and one that much prefers being home. I can’t tell you how many concert tickets I’ve bought and never went to the actual concert.

    The upside? I can tap into my extroversion when I need to, and it comes in handy for my coaching and consulting practice, especially sales and networking. But I’ve learned that after facilitating a 2 or 3-day session I now know to PLAN for what I call an “energy hangover” and keep the following day free of interaction.

    I think the internal balance/tension gives me a unique perspective with my clients. I noticed a few years ago that I attract naturally introverted clients – I believe we can “recognize each other” on an almost intuitive level. True for you?

    • Jillian, I can *so* see you as an ambivert! You possess many of the qualities that I love about introverts, but you also have such presence in social situations. I think that the tension between those two sides of you is what makes your business what it is — and makes it possible to work with people the way that you do. It’s a beautiful balance.

      I know all about the energy hangover! My tolerance is much lower… After an evening full of socializing, I know I’ll have the hangover the next day. ;)

      And you absolutely hit the nail on the head about the way introverts intuitively find each other. As an INFJ, I am (supposedly) of the rarest personality type — and yet, if you ran an analysis on my clientele, you’d see a hugely disproportionate number of other INFJs and fellow introverts. I believe that introverts often feel heard by other introverts, and feeling heard is so foundational to creative work.

  3. I have been SO eager to talk about this book! I read it a few months ago and have a fairly loose grasp of memory these days but you pulled out lines that have stayed with me. “Culture of Character” – gasp! – yes! – I love that. I think, as I’ve gotten older, I have deliberately chosen to surround myself with people of substance and character. It’s not a world I see reflected, necessarily, in the media, but in MY world, it’s very present.

    One of my closest friends, an extrovert, once told me that I make it terribly difficult for people to get to know me but that I am worth the effort. He meant it both as a compliment and a criticism – something for me to work on. And his words stung when I first heard them in my 20s. (I’ve been called cold from time to time and that felt like another version of it.) But in my 30s, I love the compliment of it. I love that I am a bit mysterious. That I have this delightful inner world that is mine to explore. I wouldn’t choose the alternative.

    My mother recently dropped off a “memory box” I’d put together for myself as a young girl. I opened it last week and found all sorts of Little Carrie artifacts, including a few report cards. I was proud of all those grades, wee keener I was. But what struck me in reading them all these years later were some of the teacher comments. One that stuck out was from a woman who praised my ideas and my creativity and wished that I had the “self-confidence” to share more. Self-confidence? It wasn’t that I lacked self-confidence. It just isn’t my nature to volunteer ideas when they haven’t been asked for or when others are enthusiastic to share their own. I’m entirely content to keep my thoughts folded in my own pocket. I think in some ways it’s even a sign of confidence that I didn’t feel the need for the class’ approval. I wanted to write that Mrs. Howard a letter and send her a copy of Susan Cain’s book. She could do with some mind-opening if she’s still in the teaching profession, assessing young minds.

    Your question about the American extrovert ideal is an interesting one. We Canadians are sometimes labelled introverts, meek and mild and flavorless. So I haven’t a lot of energy for stereotypes in general – especially for something so broad as an entire nation – but I would say that, yes, from the outside, extroversion seems to be a quality that is highly regarded in the US. It’s somehow connected with bravery and leadership and confidence and patriotism. The President of the United States is an introvert, of course, but he is heavily criticized in (some) American media for his introversion (among other things). And yet, outside of the United States, Barack Obama is so well-regarded. He is the most-respected and admired American president in my lifetime. He is seen as a man of principle and evenness. A collaborator. A man of substance and reason. Certainly he hasn’t been a flawless leader but that he hasn’t had greater support from his own nation suggests to some of us in the outside world that perhaps America really does favour the bold and shiny.

    • I know just what you mean about the complesult that your friend gave you; it is one that I too have been given, and it hurt me at the time it was said. Who wants to be thought of as inaccessible? But I’m starting to embrace the beauty there — the mystery, as you astutely put it. I wouldn’t give up my “delightful inner world” for anything.

      And oh, your observation about self-confidence really touched me. To not need the affirmation of others — nothing requires more confidence than this. It is this approach to the world that makes you so magnetic, that draws people to you and the work you do. You create space in a way that invites people to fill it — and you start with an assumption that *everyone* has profound ideas to share. You ought to write that letter! Mrs. Howard has a lot to learn from you.

    • I totally relate to that! I was recently told that when someone first met me, they thought I was stuck-up. But then when they got to know me, they discovered that I’m delightfully not. I’ve heard this a few times in my life, and I’m always so surprised…I see myself as a happy, compassionate, friendly person. And I AM…one-on-one. But in groups of people, I’m often the quiet one.

  4. When I was in school (even in high school), I was so shy I wouldn’t even call my best friends on the phone.

    Then one day I got a job at Hollywood Video. Somewhere in the renting of all those movies to all of those people, I learned to make small talk.

    One day, I had the distinct realization that I had learned the skill to be able to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

    But it’s still a skill I learned. Not who I naturally am on my own. =)

    (Not done with the chapter, but will post more when I finish!)

  5. I was thinking about the shift from the culture of character to the culture of personality, and I wonder if we — creatives, at least — aren’t starting to force the pendulum back again. At least in working for ourselves and in supporting other solopreneurs and artisans, whether local artists and establishments or sites like Etsy, we are saying character matters, people matter, we’re not buying the slick marketing anymore. I think we can also act toward that purpose by being transparent and intentional in our behavior and holding others accountable — as much as possible without getting fired or breaking relationship — for their honesty as well. But then I’m blessed to do my daywork in an environment where I feel free to speak up.

    Do you think there are ways we can work to reclaim that culture of character, even if it’s on a small scale?

    • I think you’re really onto something here, Rebecca. We have developed a fundamental mistrust of companies and corporations — and I think that this is due, at least in part, to the culture of personality. The big brands have tapped into that culture, projecting personality initially through advertising and now through smarmy things like paid content generation on social media. But as they exploit it, it draws our attention, and we begin to crave character again. It’s exciting to think that we could be on the forefront of a shift.

      As small business owners, I believe that we have a responsibility to be people of character — and more than that, to make character central to our business. As our businesses grow, the pressure to shift from character to personality increases exponentially. It’s the cultural norm, and it’s glamorized from every angle. But our world doesn’t need more personalities and celebrities; it needs people and businesses of character. We can be those people.

      • Working with chronically ill folks, both as a Fibromyalgia Coach and as the leader of a fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue support group, I actually find people are craving businesses with character. The people I’m working with are absolutely *starving* for businesses with integrity and authenticity.

        These are people who have tried, on average, 5+ doctors, for 5+ years – just to figure out the answer to the question, “What is WRONG with me?”

        I still have clients who tell me they have had doctors literally do the finger circle “you’re crazy” thing *to them*!

        So yes. My people are starving for business owners who understand the Culture of Character!

        I feel that one of the most valuable services I have to offer my clients and group members is great referrals to other great businesses.

  6. i hope i can comment to your entry here even though i haven’t picked up the book yet. :X

    interesting question on other nations and cultures. i am currently residing in manila, philippines. i was born in this country but grew up in the US from age 4 into my adulthood.

    every time i see americans here, i’m struck by how loud they are compared to others (i.e. dining in a restaurant) and how talkative they are in general. i didn’t realize these cultural nuances until i took myself out of american culture!

    • I’m so glad you’re joining the conversation!

      As someone who has traveled very little in the world at large, I am always fascinated by the perception of Americans in other cultures. Even with my limited experience, I can picture exactly what you’re saying. I often talk about how many people (here in America) are external processors — and that’s neither good nor bad, just the different ways that people relate to the world. But I do wonder whether that’s as prevalent in other countries. As I suspected, it sounds like perhaps not.

  7. An online colleague of mine suggested this book to me. I’ve been watching Susan Cain since she got started. I am enjoying this discussion which just might push me to buy the book for my Kindle!

    As a business coach for introverts since 2006, I knew her book would be a terrific boost for us!

    Now you had several questions for us here. But your first one is my focus: Do you feel a societal pressure to be bold and sociable? I’m in the USA, in the workforce and then in business for a LONG time. Pressure to be bold; not so much. My path has led to me places to where if you have IDEAS that is what counts. And everyone has ideas. Whether you over them in a brainstorming meeting or in a department memo, I haven’t found bringing ideas to the workforce to be a stopper. Pressure to be social; some. For me it’s been both growing up in an Italian family as well as in business needing to network. My husband and I travel a good deal around the world. I usually follow his extrovert lead with many of our ventures. But as Janet commented above, we’ve found other cultures to be many times – there are exceptions like when those soccer games are in progress – to be much more into themselves than making noise out and about.

    I’m not sure though if the phrase societal pressure is as accurate as what might be a societal preference. And if you can be bold in your own way and sociable in your own time, then it doesn’t feel like pressure.

    Thanks Allie for reigniting my interest in Susan’s book.

    Patricia Weber, INTJ

    • Patricia, you hit the nail on the head: Ideas are what count. I could not agree more! And your comment is actually a perfect segue into our discussion of chapter 2, where the author discusses idea generation and how our ideas are heard. As an ideas-focused person, I’ll be so interested to hear your thoughts!

  8. Pingback: Book Club, Week 2: Chapter 2 of Quiet — Allie Creative

  9. Pingback: Book Club, Week 3: Chapter 3 of Quiet — Allie Creative

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