Getting Personal: A Book Review of "Quiet" by Susan Cain
I haven't written out my Book Thoughts in a while, or published a blog generally. In this case, I think having some extra processing time was appropriate.
Quiet: The Secret Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain was the first book I finished earlier this year, after starting it the year prior. It was the last gift my mother (deliberately) gave me before she died in 2016, and though I read a chapter or two beforehand, I wasn't able to pick it up and really commit to it until last year. I am not surprised that my second year in quarantine had me powerfully lean into and question our societal (dis)regard for introversion.
I'm two generations away from a family of Quakers and Mennonites on my maternal side and descended from farmers on both sides. While we have culturally "assimilated" following our immigration to the United States many generations before, there are other ways we don't quite fit in. Many of us look like your standard Euro-mutt white people and have been afforded many privileges on the basis of whiteness. Still, many of us are not the most gregarious people, and that can get misunderstood by many.
Personally, I'm an introvert "cusp"(I learned, while writing this, that can also be called an "ambivert")--I can lean into either tendency--but the narrative accounts of introverts resonate most closely with how I experience my inner world and how I am temperamentally suited. I am easily overstimulated and incredibly sensitive to my environment. When given the choice, I prefer to prepare for most professional interactions rather than speak extemporaneously. Before reading this book, I hadn't had much exposure to the language of "highly sensitive persons" nor to the research around early childhood temperament in longitudinal research, but I found these testaments to our "soft-wiring" fascinating and endlessly useful. Susan Cain does a good job attending to both the "nature" and "nurture" (nurture being cultural factors especially) that impacts introversion, and provides some coaching for adults to set themselves up for success by finding a sweet spot between their temperaments and environments wherever possible, nudging past a comfort zone without wrecking one's nervous system so that there is always room to grow. She also attends to the parents of sensitive, observant young ones, describing ways to be encouraging without pathologizing any given temperament.
As a new parent in the pandemic, I've had to seriously reconsider the expectations I had for the "village" I'd hoped to surround us and for the world I had hoped my child would have access to. (I was halfway comforted by a recent Atlantic article by Lydia Densworth reminding me that "socializing" littles with same-age peers is a relatively modern phenomenon, that for much of humankind it was relatively normal for infants and toddlers to have mostly adults and older siblings in their immediate midst. She adds that it is secure, responsive attachment with attuned caregivers rather than peers that is so developmentally necessary at these earliest stages.) There is *so* much pressure on setting structured activities and playdates and preparing children for "school readiness," largely in the form of socialization.
Quiet provides a historical backdrop for the pressures of social "functioning" as it is commonly regarded today. Before the 20th century, Western social values centered around being a morally righteous citizen, and on temperance, even deference to your fellow (hu)man. Cain cites cultural historian Warren Susman regarding the shift in social thinking in the first half of the 20th century: "The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer...every American was to become a performing self" (p. 21). In 1921, even Carl Jung stuck up for the value he saw in "the interior life which is so painfully wanting in our civilization." Cain writes that "Well-meaning parents of the midcentury agreed that quiet was unacceptable and gregariousness ideal for both girls and boys...they sent their kids to school at increasingly young ages, where the main assignment was learning to socialize." I've learned from my clients that even preschools and kindergartens in the Chicagoland area can be highly competitive and often use interviewing/social presentation as a basis for admission. Wild!
I feel thankful to have had introverted mentors to learn from across the lifespan--my writing center supervisor who capped herself at six appointments per day, no more than three appointments consecutively, so that she also had time to actually write; my mother, who went to bed at 7pm most days I can remember so that she could read for hours.
Susan Cain makes an argument for the strength in quiet, the strength in "soft leadership," the strength in looking before you leap. If you decide to read her book, I hope it's empowering for you, too!