Since reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) when it was first published, I have recommended this book to friends, family, and acquaintances; just about anyone who is surprised to hear that I am a card-carrying introvert. Of course, the recommendation is almost always preceded by a thoughtful exchange with me filled with camaraderie and humor; a degree of sociability on my part that defies the stereotypes surrounding introversion.*
Cain absolutely destroys these stereotypes by offering up a comprehensive body of research that introversion is a personality type that offers so much of what is lacking in our world (America). This is largely due to the fact that we live in a culture unabashedly characterized by the Extrovert Ideal, as Cain writes, “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypical extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.”
It is important to note that Cain offers research which has shown that the US is the most extroverted nation on earth and that many other nations—Confucian-influenced Asian nations for instance—are heavily influenced by a commitment to introversion.
In a society such as ours that values extroversion, however, introversion is often seen as a second-class personality trait, “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” She adds that, “Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
In a 1950s study Cain reveals that, “Introverted children were often singled out as problem cases (a situation familiar to anyone with an introverted child today).” Personality psychology of the same era “defines[d] introversion not in terms of a rich inner life but as a lack of qualities such as assertiveness and sociability.”
In more recent studies, Cain offers a mountain of evidence that these presumptions of introversion missed that introverts simply “work more slowly and deliberatively” and that they “focus on one task at a time.” She adds that many introverts have goals that defy the Extrovert Ideal of success as “[t]hey’re [often] relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.”
Introverts tend to “listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”**
The Extrovert Ideal is nowhere more omnipresent than within many of our schools where introverted students are questioned why they eat alone, are penalized for not speaking up during class-wide discussions, and ridiculed for reading a book during recess. “We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts,” Cain asserts, “which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one-third to half of Americans are introverts.”
“If these statistics surprise you, that’s probably because so many people pretend to be extroverts. Closet introverts pass undetected on playgrounds, in high school locker rooms, and in the corridors of corporate America… You have only to raise the subject of this book with your friends and acquaintances to find that the most unlikely people consider themselves introverts.”
Long before reading Susan Cain’s book, I would like to think that I understood what these kids were going through in schools whose culture honored the Extrovert Ideal; a cultural norm establishing expectations not only for the students but for the staff.
As an introverted middle school teacher, and as Susan Cain affirms, I navigated a world of staff meetings, committee assignments, pep assemblies, and a litany of social responsibilities with quiet fortitude knowing that the great bulk of my working hours would actually be spent with students.
In the classroom, I encouraged participation but demanded engagement; and there are many ways to demonstrate engagement without raising your hand and sharing thoughts and questions with the larger group. Susan Cain—with Gregory Mone and Erica Moroz and illustrations by Grant Snider—brings this reality to vivid light in a more recent book directed at students, Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids (2016). Here she cites much of the same research and presents many of the same ideas from Quiet but in a manner directed at a younger audience or at parents of introverted kids navigating their way through school environments dominated by the Extrovert Ideal.
This is a necessary book because, as Cain points out what is probably obvious to many of us already, “the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert.” I’ve long known that this just isn’t so.
During my time in the classroom, I was able to use a personal comfort level with my own introversion to identify kids with similar personality and behavioral tendencies. This is challenging in a class of 32 kids but there are ways to do it. Perhaps what I am most proud of is that my classroom became a quiet refuge for those needing to escape the extroverted chaos of the cafeteria during lunch break… middle school lunch, remember?
I specifically invited kids to join The Atlas Club with the goal of transforming the eastern wall of our classroom into a giant map of the world.
Using a roll map of the world, we determined that a magnification of four would fill most of the wall. We first measured and calculated the placement of the lines of latitude and longitude and penciled them onto the wall making a massive grid. This reduced the monumental task of drawing a map of the world into hundreds of smaller tasks simply measuring and filling in what belonged—at a scale of four to one—in each of the grid’s compartments. These smaller tasks allowed students to work on their own or with only a few others, something introverts tend to crave over the often rambunctious cacophony within a typical classroom.
In order to set the stage for success, we painted the wall ocean blue and then I announced after only a week or so that we were already 75% done with our map. It took the rest of the year to complete… but we did it, thankful many times that we worked with pencils.
While the goal was clear and the standards of measurement, coloring, and more were established, students could come and go as they pleased. They could work on the map’s many different areas of need, sit quietly at a desk and read or do homework, or just come in and rest up for the remainder of their usually loud day.
The typical noise level was that of a modern library; not absolute silence, but soft-spoken communication when necessary, chill music in the background if someone requested it. At times, 10 or 15 students would be working on a wide variety of tasks and you could hear a pin drop. Of course others, as Susan Cain astutely confirms, were riotous moments of laughter and fun… all from a collection of introverts who learned that they weren’t misfits but that they, and others like them, simply needed a break from all the noise… a break from all the people “that can’t stop talking.”
*If you want to spark some interest in a reluctant reader, you can suggest this widely viewed Susan Cain TED Talk:
**Here’s a quick survey to evaluate your own tendencies toward introversion:
From Quiet Revolution “The Introvert Test”