Montgomery, Alabama. December 1, 1955. A public bus pulls to a stop and a sensibly dressed woman in her forties gets on. She carries herself erectly, despite having spent the day bent over an ironing board in a dingy basement tailor shop at the Montgomery Fair department store. Her feet are swollen, her shoulders ache. She sits in the first row of the Colored section and watches quietly as the bus fills with riders. Until the driver orders her to give her seat to a white passenger.
So begins Susan Cain's riveting book on introversion, the much-maligned personality trait shared by more of us than you would probably guess: one out of every two or three Americans, a third to half of our nation, are introverts. "If you're not an introvert yourself," Cain writes, "you're surely raising, managing, married to, or coupled with one."
The woman utters a single word that ignites one of the most important civil rights protests of the twentieth century, one word that helps America find its better self.
The word is "No."
As Cain points out in this powerful and compellingly readable analysis of how personality type shapes culture and history, to be an introvert is not necessarily to be shy, as many people think, or slow, or timid. (Note the negative connotation of those words.)
While there is no standard definition of "introvert," Cain says (this despite hundreds of studies on the common personality trait), she picks out several key characters of the quiet end of the introvert-extrovert continuum. Introverts do just fine on less outside stimulation, she writes, "as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book." Introverts work more slowly and deliberately, do less multi-tasking, and "can have mighty powers of concentration." Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.
Further, she points out, introverts tend to "dislike conflict" and "have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions."
Quiet is no feel-good pop psychology book; it's a thorough and insightful look at those of us who, like Rosa Parks, know the power of quiet fortitude in a world that could use to do a lot less talking and more listening, a lot more being and less doing, a lot more steadily acting on core beliefs and a lot less accumulating riches and stuff, and a lot more loving than bragging and fighting. (Just sayin'.)
Quiet illuminates what introverts have to contribute to a world that Cain maintains really, truly needs our gifts:
Take the partnership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.: a formidable orator refusing to give up his seat on a segregated bus wouldn't have had the same effect as a modest woman who'd clearly prefer to keep silent but for the exigencies of the situation.
Quiet reads like the Introvert Manifesto, and in true introvert style, it's not about violence or even oratory; it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking call to use our power for our own and the world's good, and to nurture and take pride in our own characteristically quiet, deep and considered gifts.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Susan Cain practiced corporate law for seven years, representing clients like JP Morgan and General Electric, and then worked as a negotiations consultant, training all kinds of people, from hedge fund managers to TV producers to college students negotiating their first salaries. She went to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She describes herself as someone who prefers listening to talking, reading to socializing, and likes cozy chats over group settings. You can find her TED talk here, with an excerpt from the audiobook
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