Writer Susan Cain on her New York Times bestseller and the quiet power of introverts
It can be difficult to be an introvert growing up in a world geared toward extroverts. In her New York Times bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain questions what she calls the "Extrovert Ideal" of Western society and suggests that by nurturing the natural creativity and introspection of introverts rather than forcing them to change, society can greatly benefit.
Cain will be at the Tattered Cover LoDo to sign and discuss her book at 7 p.m. tonight. We caught up with the author about the power of introverts and how society could evolve to create a more hospitable place for them to thrive.
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Westword: What made you want to write this book?
Susan Cain: It was really a matter of being an introvert, myself, growing up in an extroverted world. I think I've been aware from a very young age of the expectation to be different from the way that I actually was. And then as I got older I really started looking around and realizing that so many of the people I admire, both in my own personal life and also some of my historical heroes from Charles Darwin to Dr. Seuss, that they were introverts also and that they accomplished what they did not in spite of who they were, but because of who they were. And so it just seemed like this ridiculous situation in society that introverts were being told to be extroverts when in fact the world would be benefitting more if introverts were encouraged to do their own thing. So I really wanted to draw attention to that.
In the book you talk about the rise of the extrovert ideal, can you discuss what you mean by that?
It's the expectation that the ideal self, that the ideal person is bold, is assertive, is comfortable in the spotlight. That we should all strive to be this way if we're not naturally that way already. Our most important cultural institutions--our schools, our workplaces, our churches, our synagogues--they are also set up in ways that encourage and kind of mandate this way of being. So for example now in schools children are required to participate in near constant group work. Our offices are organized in teams with people working in big, open-plan offices with very little privacy or room for solitude. So everything is set up to encourage this ideal self of the gregarious, assertive person. That's a wonderful way of being, but there are many varieties of human experience and we're not taking all of them into account.
Why do you think the extrovert ideal became the ideal in Western society?
To some extent it's part of our cultural DNA. Western society in general is founded on Greco-Roman ideals, which prized oratory and verbal sparring. But beyond that in this country we had much more room for a variety of personality type really until the turn of the 20th century. It used to be that people were living in small towns and farms and were working alongside people they'd known all their lives, and so in that mode people really valued each other based on who they were and they looked for inner worth. But at the turn of the 20th century, people started moving to the cities and working for big business and so they started placing value on what they called personality. Like, are you assertive? Are you magnetic? Do you stand out at a job interview? Are you a good salesman to be able to sell your company's products? Those were the things that started to be important. And we're really living with that cultural legacy still today.