Book Review: “Quiet” by Susan Cain

Author Susan Cain, Published 2012 

Reviewed by Naseer A. Tahir, MD 

The author Susan Cain, herself an introvert, is an honors graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School. She worked since 2005 for the book. She met thousands of people and has read as many books for the preparation and writing of this book.

The book is an extensive research about the introvert-extrovert spectrum of personality, and an excellent reading for those interested in this subject matter.

The book will help introverts and extroverts to understand their special talents and how to use those abilities effectively. The book also teaches the language of Quiet.

This knowledge is useful to understand our introvert or extrovert children. Once we understand the difference, we as parents are able to guide them better. This knowledge is useful to understand why this society values packaging more than the contents. 

No doubt, America is for extroverts. Look anywhere: in politics or public life, school or college, Place of work or home, Playgrounds or theaters, extroverts are admired and looked up to.

It is interesting to note that most of the saintly people including prophets of God are closer to being introverts. They are humble and meek, soft-spoken and kind, not wishing to be in limelight and preferring solitude, unselfish and helping others.

Some us might look at Islamic teachings as promoting introversion: Don’t talk un-necessarily, don’t do self-praise, think of others, be humble, shun arrogance, and emphasizes Character. 

In the “introduction” of the book, the author relates the powerful story of Rosa Parks. 

Montgomery, Alabama. December 1, 1955. Early evening. 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.

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.”

The driver threatens to have her arrested.

“You may do that,” says Rosa Parks.

A police officer arrives. He asks Parks why she won’t move.

“Why do you all push us around?” she answers simply.

“I don’t know,” he says. “But the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.”

On the afternoon of her trial and conviction for disorderly conduct, the Montgomery Improvement Association holds a rally for Parks at the Holt Street Baptist Church, in the poorest section of town. Five thousand gather to support Parks’s lonely act of courage. They squeeze inside the church until its pews can hold no more. The rest wait patiently outside, listening through loudspeakers. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd. “There comes a time that people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” he tells them. “There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.” 

This quiet and weak woman is a shining example of hidden power of an introvert. It is generally known that one half to one third of Americans are introverts. But, so strong is the influence of extroverts in our society that most introverts hide and act as extroverts throughout their life. Introversion—along with its cousin sensitivity and seriousness and shyness—is now second-class personality trait in present culture.

According to the author, we have embraced the Extrovert Ideal unthinkingly. Forgetting that some of the greatest ideas and inventions came from the introverts.

Without introverts the world would be devoid of:

  • The theory of evolution
  • Personal computers
  • The theory of gravity
  • Theory of relativity
  • W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”
  • Peter Pan
  • The Cat in the Hat
  • Charlie Brown
  • Schindler’s List, E.T., and the Close Encounters of the third kind
  • Google
  • Harry Potter

The figures like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi, and Rosa Parks achieved what they did not in spite of but because of their introversion. 

It was in 1921 when Carl Jung published Psychological Types, and popularized the terms Introverts and Extroverts. At present there are many definitions of these terms, but most psychologist agree on some common points.

Extroverts need outside stimulation to function well, introverts don’t. Extroverts like meeting new people; tackle assignments quickly, multitask easily, and are risk takers.

Introverts work slowly, focusing on one task with mighty power of concentration, listen more than they talk, and express better in writing than in conversation. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval, not necessarily belonging to all introverts.

It is not black and white division, but one could belong to any shade of gray. One could be a shy extrovert like Barbara Streisand who suffers paralyzing stage fright; or non-shy introvert like Bill Gates.

It was the extrovert ideal that metamorphosed Dale Carnagey (He changed the spelling of his name later), a poor tongue-tied farm boy from Missouri, to Dale Carnegie, the orator and public-speaking master-teacher in New York. Smartly, he had realized the value of art of public speaking in the world of business. Painstakingly, he mastered it first and taught to others.

An important change occurred around the turn of twentieth century: America changed from Culture of Character to Culture of personality.

Author writes on page 21:

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.

But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.”

(We as Muslims value Character much more than Personality) 

As America changed from rural to industrial, people moved to cities. In 1790, only 3 percent of Americans lived in cities; in 1840, 8% and in 1920 a third of America was urbanite. The simple rural life changed to competitive urban life. Trying to better than others they turned to the self-help book. By 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtues to outer charm—to know what to say and how to say it.

While words like Duty, Honor, Morals, Integrity, and Manners were used in earlier books; the new self-help books used words like: Magnetic, Stunning, Forceful, Dominant, and Energetic.

The value of “formality” crumbled and relationship of men and women changed to more open and bold. The impact was everywhere, the men who were quiet were considered to be gay.

With everyone trying to excel, those who suffered a feeling of inadequacy to new circumstances were labeled by a new term of “Inferiority complex.” IC was popular in press and to be quiet was unacceptable. For those who needed pharmacological help, drugs like Miltown and Serentil were promoted to cure that anxiety that comes from not fitting in.

Gregariousness was the new ideal for girls and boys and it changed the educational system as well. Introverted children were singled out as problem cases. Classrooms promoted study groups more and more, where children could interact and learn.

Harvard provost Paul Buck declared in 1940 that Harvard should reject the “sensitive and neurotic” type and the “intellectually over-stimulated” in favor of boys of the “healthy extrovert kind.”

The author discusses whether creativity is achieved best through brainstorming of a group or by solitude of an individual. The discussion is spread over several pages, and in the end she declares the importance of solitude. She details the differences of introvert leaders from those of extrovert leaders.

In chapter 3 of the book, the author gives us the importance of working alone. Stephen Wozniak, the inventor, gives this advice to children in his memoirs: 

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. 

Newton was introvert. William Wordsworth described him as “A mind forever/voyaging through strange seas of thought alone.”

She has an important advice on page 73: 

If this is true—if solitude is an important key to creativity—then we might all want to develop a taste for it. We’d want to teach our kids to work independently. We’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite. 

The author writes about Biological origin of the human temperament. The switchboard for emotions is part of brain called Amygdala, part. This is from research done by Jerome Kagan. He did his research on children, studying their responses to various stimuli. Amygdala receives information from senses and then signals rest of the brain and nervous system how to respond. It is the function of Amygdala that determines if we are introverts or extroverts. But it is an ancient part of the brain and the primitive mammals have their version of it. Evolution and development of neocortex has made us more complex. Frontal cortex, which has the ability to over power Amygdala, helps us  make various important daily decisions: Which book to read, how to plan a meeting, and also how to overcome the fear of something.

This is the tool that the introverts will use to help them overcome fear of meeting people, or public speaking: in other words how to become extrovert! 

She wrote on page 122:

(The other difference between introverts and extroverts is their preference for stimulation.)

For several decades, beginning in the late 1960s, an influential research psychologist named Hans Eysenck hypothesized that human beings seek “just right” levels of stimulation—not too much and not too little. Stimulation is the amount of input we have coming in from the outside world. It can take any number of forms, from noise to social life to flashing lights. Eysenck believed that extroverts prefer more stimulation than introverts do, and that this explained many of their differences: introverts enjoy shutting the doors to their offices and plunging into their work, because for them this sort of quiet intellectual activity is optimally stimulating, while extroverts function best when engaged in higher-wattage activities like organizing team-building workshops or chairing meetings.

Eysenck also thought that the basis of these differences might be found in a brain structure called the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS). The ARAS is a part of the brain stem that has connections leading up to the cerebral cortex and other parts of the brain. The brain has excitatory mechanisms that cause us to feel awake, alert, and energetic—“aroused,” in the parlance of psychologists.

The place where we get that optimal stimulus is called “sweet spot” by the author; we are probably seeking it already, without being aware of it. For some it is the “prayer rug,” and for some it is hanging out with friends.

Chapter 8 is about interesting and noteworthy situation of a high school near Cupertino, California. White families are leaving the town because their children can’t compete the Asian kid’s test scores and awe-inspiring study habits. Here is the story of one of those students, Mike: 

Mike is dressed in sporty all-American attire of khakis, windbreaker, and baseball cap, but his sweet, serious face and wispy mustache give him the aura of a budding philosopher, and he speaks so softly that I have to lean forward to hear him.

“At school,” says Mike, “I’m a lot more interested in listening to what the teacher says and being the good student, rather than the class clown or interacting with other kids in the class. If being outgoing, shouting, or acting out in class is gonna affect the education I receive, it’s better if I go for education.”

Mike relates this view matter-of-factly, but he seems to know how unusual it is by American standards. His attitude comes from his parents, he explains. “If I have a choice between doing something for myself, like going out with my friends, or staying home and studying, I think of my parents. That gives me the strength to keep studying. My father tells me that his job is computer programming, and my job is to study.”

Mike’s mother taught the same lesson by example. A former math teacher who worked as a maid when the family immigrated to North America, she memorized English vocabulary words while washing dishes. She is very quiet, says Mike, and very resolute. “It’s really Chinese to pursue your own education like that. My mother has the kind of strength that not everyone can see.”

Google and Apple Computer headquarters is in Cupertino. 77% of the students at the high school are Asian-American and 53 of them were National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. The average SAT score is 1916 out of 2400, 27 percent higher than the nationwide average.

The library is to Cupertino what the mall or soccer field is to other towns: an unofficial center of village life. High school kid  cheerfully refer to studying as “going nerding.

Chris is a Korean-American sophomore, said, “Being smart is actually admired, even if you’re weird.”

A local college counselor named Purvi Modi agrees. “Introversion is not looked down upon,” she tells me. “It is accepted. In some cases it is even highly respected and admired. It is cool to be a Master Chess Champion and play in the band.”

“I think it’s our culture,” explains Tiffany Liao, a poised Swarthmore-bound high school senior whose parents are from Taiwan. “Study, do well, don’t create waves. It’s inbred in us to be more quiet. When I was a kid and would go to my parents’ friends’ house and didn’t want to talk, I would bring a book. It was like this shield, and they would be like, ‘She’s so studious!’ And that was praise.”

It’s hard to imagine other American moms and dads outside Cupertino smiling on a child who reads in public while everyone else is gathered around the barbecue. But parents schooled a generation ago in Asian countries were likely taught this quieter style as children. In many East Asian classrooms, the traditional curriculum emphasizes listening, writing, reading, and memorization. Talking is simply not a focus, and is even discouraged.

Introversion has flourished in this town with positive results, but when these kids graduate and head for Universities in other town, they find themselves ill-prepared for the real American life. They fail to fit in easily. For Asian-American kids, the cost of failing to fit in is social unease. But as they grow up, they may pay the price with their paychecks. The journalist Nicholas Lemann once interviewed a group of Asian-Americans on the subject of meritocracy for his book The Big Test. “A sentiment that emerges consistently,” he wrote, “is that meritocracy ends on graduation day, and that afterward, Asians start to fall behind because they don’t have quite the right cultural style for getting ahead: too passive, not hail-fellow-well-met enough.”


The author discusses how the introvert children are labeled in school as “nerds” and she propose solutions for handling the situation. The situation could be hard to understand for extroverts parents. Consider this cautionary tale by Dr. Jerry Miller, a child psychologist and the director of the Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan. Dr. Miller had a patient named Ethan, whose parents brought him for treatment on four separate occasions. Each time, the parents voiced the same fears that something was wrong with their child. Each time, Dr. Miller assured them that Ethan was perfectly fine.

The reason for their initial concern was simple enough. Ethan was seven, and his four-year-old brother had beaten him up several times. Ethan didn’t fight back. His parents—both of them outgoing, take-charge types with high-powered corporate jobs and a passion for competitive golf and tennis—were OK with their younger son’s aggression, but worried that Ethan’s passivity was “going to be the story of his life.”

As Ethan grew older, his parents tried in vain to instill “fighting spirit” in him. They sent him onto the baseball diamond and the soccer field, but Ethan just wanted to go home and read. He wasn’t even competitive at school. Though very bright, he was a B student. He could have done better, but preferred to focus on his hobbies, especially building model cars. He had a few close friends, but was never in the thick of classroom social life. Unable to account for his puzzling behavior, Ethan’s parents thought he might be depressed. 

Here are some of the insights as suggested by the author in the concluding chapter: 

Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socializing with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers—of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity—to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply.

In conclusion: we are what God made us: introvert or extrovert. Being one is neither superior nor inferior to the other. Both have special talents. Both are beautiful creations of GOD. 

Are you introvert or extrovert? Take a personality test:

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