Quiet book cover

Enjoy the Silence

By Kristy Webster | published Thursday, November 21, 2013 |
Thursday Review Contributor

A reflective essay on the bestselling book Quiet, by Susan Cain

My initial intention when choosing to read Quiet by Susan Cain was to better understand, and more importantly, advocate for my two sons, especially, my younger son who’s still in school. I myself test as an INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling & Judging) in the famous Meyers Briggs personality in spite of being described as “cheerful, outgoing and friendly” by others. While Quiet takes on the big picture dilemma of the extrovert ideal especially in Western Culture, I’ve chosen to focus on where the bias begins and is born: childhood.

When my boys are among people they are completely comfortable with—and those people are part of a very, very small lot, mind you—my older son Isaac becomes talkative, opinionated even, while my younger son Parker, even in the deepest of his comfort zones remains a quiet observer, refraining from small talk, only piping up when the conversation takes a turn towards something of meaning to him, a “big picture” topic. It is my opinion, and I believe it is inferred by Cain, that introverts become aware at a very young age that their behavior makes others uncomfortable and that others find them strange. Inevitably, feeling this judgment, introverts like my sons and I are very choosy about what social situations we are willing to put ourselves into. Cain writes: “If you're an introvert, you also know that the bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain. As a child you might have overheard your parents apologize for your shyness.”

In fact, some of the most moving examples in Quiet deal with extroverted parents raising introverted children. In some cases, an extrovert parent goes that extra mile to understand his or her child. But in others a parent simply cannot embrace that child’s quiet, often withdrawn nature. This plays out in society as a whole. It is a matter of acknowledging the gifts of both personality types, rather than idealizing one and dismissing or trying to “cure” the other. Cain aptly states, “We know from myths and fairy tales that there are many different kinds of powers in this world. One child is given a light saber, another a wizard's education. The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of power, but to use well the kind you've been granted.”

Most introverts get their first bitter taste of this bias when they start school. My older son Isaac relates the experience of sitting alone at lunch in middle school and having other students “forced” on him by teachers who worried something was wrong. But for Isaac, eating lunch alone was his way of recharging after buzzing from one class of twenty-five peers to another. Alone time was his respite, a time to recharge. Isaac prefers quiet nights inside on his computer, talking to his friends online or over text. When Isaac does cultivate a bond, it is deep. Like most introverts he loathes the pressure of having to make small talk with people outside his small but trusted circle.

It is quite understandable why someone would observe my older son eating alone in the cafeteria day after day and feel compelled to offer him company. Perhaps, there were days during lunchtime he would have preferred company, moments when he was feeling lonely. But a generic or forced “playdate” was not a solution. It is an organic, genuine connection or attraction to another human being that most highly esteemed and desired, not an ordered invitation, not a superficial, contrived social interaction based on someone else’s fears. One of my favorite passages in Quiet beautifully expresses the sensitive nature of introvert children saying, “Or at school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same.”

In addition to being an introvert, my younger son Parker falls on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. “Still waters run deep” is an accurate and suitable way to describe him. Just recently while waiting for a doctor in an exam room, Parker sat contemplating, staring up at the ceiling, then without pretense spoke up as if in the middle of a conversation to say, “The public school system seems awfully primitive for the 21st century.” These types of random yet insightful and profound announcements are common with Parker. When he was only ten-years-old, as we sat together eating pb&j sandwiches, Parker suddenly piped up and said, “Don’t be surprised if when I’m grown and moved out I never call you. I’m just not very good at keeping in touch and I’m very adaptable to new surroundings.” This falls in line with Cain’s assertion that, “The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions--sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments--both physical and emotional—unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss--another person's shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

How much of his personality is due to just being an introvert and how much is to do his being on the spectrum is often unclear. But like his older brother Isaac, Parker resents the assumption he wants to be alone all the time, that he doesn’t want to connect or interact with others. The truer statement is that both my sons, like many introverts, like myself, most definitely want a connection with others, but desire a particular type of interaction, a specific kind of socializing that honors their sensitivities, their interests. Cain writes, “Introverts, in contrast, 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. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

What does one stand to gain by embracing the introverts of the world? In a word: everything. What does one stand to lose? Everything. As long as this bias exists towards introverts, those with the loudest voices and not necessarily the best ideas will lead us. Cain plainly asserts, “Don't think of introversion as something that needs to be cured,” and urges introverts “to trust their gut and share their ideas as powerfully as they can. This does not mean aping extroverts; ideas can be shared quietly, they can be communicated in writing, they can be packaged into highly produced lectures, they can be advanced by allies. The trick for introverts is to honor their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.”

In a nutshell, it’s about honoring one another’s differences, and letting go of an ideal our culture rigidly holds onto, what our culture deems as “normal.” It’s time to start opening ourselves up, not to a new ideal, but to a more inclusive vision, a culture that makes room for thoughtful reflection amidst brazen opinions, that acknowledges the power of quiet.

Crown Publishing Group

Penguin Books UK