Writer Susan Cain on her New York Times bestseller and the quiet power of introverts
It can be difficult to be an introvert growing up in a world geared toward extroverts. In her New York Times bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain questions what she calls the "Extrovert Ideal" of Western society and suggests that by nurturing the natural creativity and introspection of introverts rather than forcing them to change, society can greatly benefit.
Cain will be at the Tattered Cover LoDo to sign and discuss her book at 7 p.m. tonight. We caught up with the author about the power of introverts and how society could evolve to create a more hospitable place for them to thrive.
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Westword: What made you want to write this book?
Susan Cain: It was really a matter of being an introvert, myself, growing up in an extroverted world. I think I've been aware from a very young age of the expectation to be different from the way that I actually was. And then as I got older I really started looking around and realizing that so many of the people I admire, both in my own personal life and also some of my historical heroes from Charles Darwin to Dr. Seuss, that they were introverts also and that they accomplished what they did not in spite of who they were, but because of who they were. And so it just seemed like this ridiculous situation in society that introverts were being told to be extroverts when in fact the world would be benefitting more if introverts were encouraged to do their own thing. So I really wanted to draw attention to that.
In the book you talk about the rise of the extrovert ideal, can you discuss what you mean by that?
It's the expectation that the ideal self, that the ideal person is bold, is assertive, is comfortable in the spotlight. That we should all strive to be this way if we're not naturally that way already. Our most important cultural institutions--our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our synagogues--they are also set up in ways that encourage and kind of mandate this way of being. So for example now in schools children are required to participate in near constant group work. Our offices are organized in teams with people working in big, open-plan offices with very little privacy or room for solitude. So everything is set up to encourage this ideal self of the gregarious, assertive person. That's a wonderful way of being, but there are many varieties of human experience and we're not taking all of them into account.
Why do you think the extrovert ideal became the ideal in Western society?
To some extent it's part of our cultural DNA. Western society in general is founded on Greco-Roman ideals, which prized oratory and verbal sparring. But beyond that in this country we had much more room for a variety of personality type really until the turn of the 20th century. It used to be that people were living in small towns and farms and were working alongside people they'd known all their lives, and so in that mode people really valued each other based on who they were and they looked for inner worth. But at the turn of the 20th century, people started moving to the cities and working for big business and so they started placing value on what they called personality. Like, are you assertive? Are you magnetic? Do you stand out at a job interview? Are you a good salesman to be able to sell your company's products? Those were the things that started to be important. And we're really living with that cultural legacy still today.
I think first of all we need a gigantic consciousness raising, much the way we needed with the issue of women's rights back in the 50s and 60s and 70s. People spoke about raising of consciousness, just making people aware of what the bias was against women and why it was harmful. I think we have to go through the same process now with introverts. But then more specifically, companies really need to rethink their hiring policies, their promotion policies, the way they do office design. I think in education we need an overhaul of educational design to get away from the constant group work that we have, to instruct teachers in what varieties of temperament really look like so that they don't view quieter children as needing to be brought along and turned into extroverts, but instead made to be very functional and achieving for who they are.
And how do you think society will benefit from allowing introverts to be themselves?
Well, I think on an individual level I can tell you from the thousands of letters I have received that there will be many, many individuals out there who feel psychically stronger for living in a society that honors them for who they are. So there's that just off the bat. But beyond that I think as a society we care a lot about innovation, we care a lot about creativity, we care about taking educated risks and not unwarranted risks. And all of these areas--creativity, measured risk-taking, these are all areas where introverts excel if they're allowed to be who they are. So I think we'll see a more creative world. I think in this culture we prize "seize the day" and "just do it," those are kind of our maxims. And I think those are nice maxims but we also need some tempering so that we don't take risks we shouldn't be taking. And introverts tend to be good at that side of things.
What do you hope that people take away from seeing you speak at the Tattered Cover and reading your book?
Oh, gosh, I guess what I've been talking about. I believe we're at the beginning of what I call a quiet revolution right now. I think that introverts today are where women were around the 1950s or 1960s, so I hope that people will take away that we're at the start of something very big and this revolution will change their personal lives, it will change the lives of their children, of their colleagues, of their spouses if we all kind of band together and make it happen. So I think this is the very beginning. So I'm hoping to plant those seeds, to start those ideas flashing around in people's heads and see where they take us over the next ten years.
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