Monday, 14 January 2013

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Big loud parties have never been my style. Speaking up in front of a group of people makes me squirm. When it comes to sociability I like small gatherings in a quiet bar or hanging out with friends in their houses, lounging on the sofa and chatting. Doing new things and going to new places worry me - I like to plan and I like to be in control of my environment. Doing big things like flying to America alone or having to put on a ‘life and soul of the party’ persona can make me so anxious I’ll get cold sweats and stomach aches. At work I am confident, knowledgable and effervescent, but this is because it is my territory and I know it well.

For the longest time, I have thought these were negative things, that they are a mental state I should be able to force my way through and move past. But reading Quiet has shown me it is not a mental state. It is not something that is the fault of childhood experience or parenting: it is the way that my body physically works. I am an introvert and that’s ok.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain investigates the differences between introverts and extroverts, why these differences exist, and how we can work within  and around them. Introverts “prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and families. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation.” (pg. 11) Extroverts, meanwhile, “tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words... They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.” (pg. 11)

This is a book with the power to change lives, to help us understand both ourselves and each other a whole lot better. Exceedingly well written and readable, Quiet has the perfect balance between friendly writing style, scientific information, quotes from those in the know, and little real-life stories to support the facts - including some personal ones.

In part one, Cain looks at the world in which westerners live: a world geared for extroverts, in which people are encouraged to be loud, to be outspoken, to be dynamic and work in large sociable groups, and a world in which it is much harder to hear the quieter people, the people who like to think carefully before they speak - and the people who find it hard or embarrassing to have to speak or react on the spot. It is also a world which assumes that because talkers are talking, what they have to say is worthwhile, and that because quiet people aren't talking, they don’t don’t have any thoughts worth hearing. This is a scary world for introverts, and a hard one to break into - especially when introverts are often the ones with the big ideas. Think Ghandi; think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (founders of Apple). It's a world that makes me anxious to participate in and yet one I can yearn to be a part of: I envy these people their ability to function loudly and proudly; it looks like they have a lot of fun and success doing it.

But perhaps the most important part of this book for me is part 2, which looks at why these different personality types exist. And it turns out that there is science to back it up. Essentially, it comes down to the amygdala, which “serves as the brain’s emotional switchboard, receiving information from the senses and then signaling the rest of the brain and nervous system how to respond. One of its functions is to instantly detect new or threatening things in the environment - from an airborne Frisbee to a hissing serpent - and send rapid-fire signals through the body that trigger the fight-or-flight responses. When the rattlesnake prepares to bite, it’s the amygdala that makes sure you run.” (pg. 102-103) Some people - introverts - have more excitable amygdalas than others, meaning that its more sensitive to threats and sends out a bigger response. Thus the same event experienced by an introvert and extrovert results in the introvert receiving a bigger panic response, thus making them more anxious and temporarily impairing their ability to think straight. It's not a mental choice - it's a physical reaction they have little control over.

Obviously though it's not just about the amygdala. Other parts of the brain have an influence, and there is clearly a role played by nurture, environment and personal history. And just because it begins with brain chemistry doesn’t mean we’re stuck permanently within that small barrier. Cain goes on to discuss how introverts can stretch themselves, either by gradually reducing the ‘fear factor’ (my term) or by exuding a faux-extrovert personality for a period of time. This goes for extroverts too - they can work on thinking more, on being quieter, and looking at the bigger picture before jumping in with a mad-cap response. But - and for me this is the really important part - we all need to revert to our true selves afterwards. That means it’s ok and natural for an introvert to want to leave a party early, go home and put their pyjamas on, or to need quiet time at the end of the day to stick their head in a book and not have to interact with others. In fact, this is a must for our mental health - because being out in the big wide world is so stimulating for introverts, having quiet or ‘loner’ time is crucial for us to be able to recharge our batteries - and failing to do so - or to acknowledge that some activities or environments involve just too much stimulation and unsurety - can be disastrous.

Quiet is a book that is clearly geared more for an introvert reader, but there’s no doubt that extroverts could learn just as much from it. Its revealing and reassuring and absolutely hits its mark. And it's nice to know I'm not alone.

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