Review of Quiet, by Susan Cain

The film V for Vendetta has a line which goes, “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”  Growing up, I was under the impression that internalizing the latter sentiment was required in order to call yourself an American.  In other words, when I heard the line, the idea that politicians lie was nothing new.  But I can’t say I had ever heard the first part, the part about artists deliberately using lies for good, until I watched that movie.  Neither a politician nor an artist, Susan Cain attempts to simply tell the truth in her book Quiet.  However, Fyodor Dostoevsky (artist) has this to say about telling the truth in his classic Crime and Punishment: “If there’s the hundredth part of a false note in speaking the truth, it leads to a discord, and that leads to trouble.”  My experiences have convinced me that Dostoevsky speaks the truth.  What we want to know, though, is how does Susan Cain do?

As best I can tell, Cain’s thesis in Quiet is that between the two major and decidedly different personality types (extrovert and introvert), in America the extroverts have convinced everyone that their type–their personality–is the ideal personality.  More simply, Cain would like to be Luke Skywalker for introverts and return balance to the force.  Unfortunately, there is quite a bit more than a hundredth part of a false note in her book.  Two of them warrant attention here.  

First, there is a section where she attempts to demonstrate that The West has a history of valuing extroverts, while The East has a history of valuing introverts.  How does she go about this supporting this claim?  Like any rhetorician, she uses proverbs.  One of The East’s proverbs she provides comes from the reputable founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, and reads, “Those who know do not speak.  Those who speak do not know.”**  Fair enough.  The provided proverb for The West, on the other hand, comes from Ptahhotep.  What Westerner doesn’t have a few ol’ Ptahhotep’s sayings memorized?  For the fuzzy, Ptahhotep said in 2400 BCE, “Be a craftsman in speech that thou mayest be strong, for the strength of one is the tongue, and speech is mightier than all fighting.”**  With writing being a relatively new form of communication back then, this guy may have just been saying the what-might-actually-be-a common western proverb, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  And, from where I sit, that has nothing to do with extroverts or introverts.  

Maybe Cain just made a little mistake, but still understands the big picture?  I wanted to believe so, too.  But then she added, as her concluding proverb for the perpetually extrovert-loving West, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  Now, I am under the impression that a proverb is prescriptive in nature, not just a true, clever sentence.  I have never heard anyone use that truism in a genuinely prescriptive manner.  Maybe I’m sheltered.  I’ve told people, mockingly, to squeak if they want something, sure, but I’m pretty sure they understood the tone of my advice included that I thought they’d lose a part of their soul for doing so.  I think the bigger problem is that, by definition, there aren’t any proverbs that advise self-promotion and talking endlessly.  Quite the opposite.  The thing about proverbs is they have to stand the test of time to earn the title.  In her research for western proverbs promoting extroverted characteristics, I find it hard to believe she didn’t stumble across “the empty can rattles the most.”  But, then, had she included that one in the book, her thesis would’ve lost some bite, I think.  

The second false note, which is not exactly false, though it definitely calls into question the gravity of the entire supposed problem, is deep into the book.  We find ourselves in the midst of a lover’s quarrel.  It seems that extroverts and introverts are often attracted to each other, which can sometimes result in marriage.  This causes problems, it seems.  For Greg and Emily, the problem is dinner parties.  Greg wants to host them.  Emily does not.  As it turns out, once Greg and Emily learn that Emily’s introversion is not wrong or bad, a compromise can be struck.  Cain’s advice?  Don’t focus on the number of dinner parties, but the format.  She says, “Instead of seating everyone around a big table, which would require the kind of all-hands conversational multitasking Emily dislikes so much, why not serve dinner buffet style, with people eating in small, casual conversational groupings on the sofas and floor pillows?”**  A friend of mine recently enlightened me to a witty phrase that defines Greg and Emily’s situation and I think fits here: White whine.  Seriously though, ladies, if you have multiple sofas and throw pillows that you don’t mind replacing every other weekend after your friends prove they’re not the refined diners you’d like to believe they are, then I can already tell you’re beautiful–we should chat.

Is there an extrovert ideal in America?  Has a (perhaps unintended) consequence been that introverts get lost in the shuffle, or worse yet, believe they should strive to change a part of themselves which cannot be changed and live with the resultant shame?  Susan Cain believes so.  I’m not convinced.  Maybe I’m not her target audience.  In any case, I’m attempting to navigate life using something a good friend taught me recently: “Every person has a story.  If you listen to it, you just might avoid judging them.”  When that doesn’t work, I fall back on Billy Joel’s, “Don’t take any shit from anybody.”  But a bibliography containing only two entries probably isn’t robust enough to get published and entice readers.  I guess if I hope to ever be published, I’ll just have to make it up as I go.


*Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Print.

**Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown, 2012. Print.




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