Sunday, July 15, 2012


Recently I read the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won't Stop Talking.  I had read about it online and was looking for some help with two things: first, understanding my introverted husband; and second, figuring out once and for all whether I'm an introvert or not.

Honestly, I had no success with the second one.  Some of the descriptions of introverts sounded like me, and some didn't.  I did find out there's a type called "ambivert" that's in between, but not much was said about this.  I mainly lean toward the idea that I'm a little more extroverted than otherwise, but I'm still not sure.

I have to say right out that I LOVED this book.  I plowed through it in a few short days and kept reading passages out loud to my husband.  It's full of actual studies of various kinds: from experiments in the world of business to neurological studies.  So there is little the author allows to stand without proof.

Here are a few of the neatest things I learned from this book.

First, I learned that introversion is at least mostly genetic.  Because of this fact, and the further fact that extroverts are the most likely members of a tribe or group to leave home and explore new lands, introverts are not evenly distributed worldwide.  There are significantly more introverts in the Middle East, Africa, and Asian, and fewer in Europe and the New World.  America is the most extroverted country in the world, with only one in five of us being introverted.

Partly because of this fact, and partly because of developments in the last century that have favored those with "magnetic, outgoing personalities" (think of how many jobs today are based on sales or customer service, compared to the farming economy of 150 years ago), our country is mainly run by extroverts.  Business favors extroverts, but this is to its detriment.  Introverts are more cautious, so their input might have been very helpful in preventing the recent economic collapse.  (Warren Buffet's cautious introversion is cited as the reason he didn't lose his shirt in 2008 as so many others did.)  And when businesses use group meetings and brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas, an unfortunate effect occurs.  The extroverts, using their charisma and readiness to think and speak quickly, get their ideas heard and drown out the ideas of introverts.  As a result, eight people have fewer, worse ideas when working together than they would have if they worked separately.  Workplaces are also arranged for extroverts, with more and more offices switching to an "open plan" and having frequent meetings to interrupt the workday. 

The internet has been hugely instrumental in fixing this.  Online, introverts and extroverts can meet on an equal footing, so that the combined efforts of many result in true synergy instead of the selected opinions of a few.  Open-source programming and social media are good examples of this.  The author gives more ideas for how businesses can harness the power of their introverted workers before spending a chapter pointing out similar problems in evangelical churches.  (Here, I feel Catholics get a free pass.  Catholicism seems the ideal church for introverts ... you honestly can attend church for years without anyone intruding on your personal space or demanding you interact more.  In some ways we might be too introverted, but I suppose that's a matter of opinion.)

After that came the really cool part -- the neuroscience portion of the book.  We all assume we know what introversion is: it's when people are quiet or shy or prefer to be alone.  However, she argues that introversion is really better defined by a neurological sensitivity called "high reactivity."  This is drawn from a long-term study that followed children through their lives.  As babies, the children are exposed to strange smells and balloons popping.  As children, they see unfamiliar people or people in strange costumes.  Their reaction is measured -- did the babies laugh or watch passively, or did they go into hysterics at an unfamiliar sound?  Did the toddlers go up to the stranger, or melt down into sobs?  The ones who cried were labeled as "high reactive."  This strong reaction to the unfamiliar lasted throughout childhood and up into high school (when the study ended).  By that point, the "high reactive" children were almost exclusively recognizable as introverts.

Introverts don't hate talking or people.  They simply have a strong reaction to busy environments and unfamiliar stimuli.  That makes them choose to limit their exposure to strange or highly social experiences.  Some, in fact, might sell things or speak in public for a living -- but at the end of the day, they recharge with silence.  What keeps them away from crowds and parties isn't fear -- it's overstimulation.  Some might also be shy, but it is possible to be a shy extrovert, or an introvert who isn't shy at all.  When introverts are in busy situations, they tend to be quieter because they are spending all their energy observing the situation, not thinking of things to say.  Some introverts, however, learn with practice to appear extroverted and seem as social as those around them.  (Which is why people have exclaimed, "What?!  John is an introvert?"  I guess I'm perceptive that way ... I knew when I first met him that he wasn't as outgoing as he was making himself look, and I resolved to get to know him.  Look how that turned out.)

What are the special skills of introverts?  One is that they tend to listen and think carefully before making a decision.  On-the-spot judgments of extroverts may sound good when they describe them, but they may not always be the most prudent choice.  Extroverts should listen carefully to the introverts around them to find flaws in their thinking.  Introverts also tend to be good at practicing diligently.  The best way to acquire any skill is by practicing it over and over, alone so that you can focus on the areas you have trouble with.  This is something that introverted violinists, athletes, and even computer programmers benefit from.  They have the patience to put in the lonely hours of practice required to get really good at something.  (At this point I think of my college roommate and dear friend, who thought nothing of practicing piano for hours and hours, or editing the same essay over and over.  Her hard work always paid off in superlative results.)  In social situations, introverts have the skill of listening, which can result in introverts who are excellent therapists or even salesmen.

There was a chapter spent on a concept called "sensitivity," which sounded very similar to high reactivity to me.  The highly sensitive person is both sensorily and emotionally sensitive.  They literally feel things more intensely than others -- from pain to noise to joy.  Most are introverted, but about a third are extroverted.  This group actually did sound a lot like me.  Highly sensitive children have such a strong sense of conscience they may feel guilty about very small things (for instance, as a child I felt guilty for liking my right foot more than my left, and tried to reassure my left foot that I still did love it too).  They attribute emotions to animals, plants, and even objects (like I did with my feet, and also pretty much every toy I ever owned).  They are so perceptive of emotion that they become strongly upset when anyone around them is sad or angry.  In the past I have described this as being "empathetic to a fault."  When anyone around me was fighting, when I was a kid, I would go to my room and cry, regardless of whether it had anything to do with me.  Lately I've seen Marko do it too ... he will break into sobs if he sees an angry look on anyone's face.  (I am not sure yet if he's sensitive or if it's just a stage he's currently in.)  As an adult, I now can moderate or just hide my own emotions, but I am still extremely perceptive of the feelings of others.  I believe this makes me a better mom, as I really do feel the way my children feel, so that it's easy for me to empathize and help them work through those feelings.

There were more character traits discussed as well.  For instance, there was a section on motivation.  Some people are motivated by reward (they will do anything to get a prize), some by threat (they will work hard out of fear that something bad will happen), some by both, and some by neither.  I myself am not strongly motivated by either reward or threat; for me it's all about the journey and if I don't find a way to enjoy something, it's very hard to get myself to do it.  Luckily I do have the ability to enjoy almost anything.  Marko, on the other hand, I can tell is motivated by reward.  When he is bored, being yelled at by me or scratched by the cat is a reward to him, because it alleviates his boredom.  The risk that he might be hurt is negligible to him.  Which is one reason why I don't think spanking would do a lick of good for him, if you pardon the pun.

Another interesting dichotomy was the ability or inability to self-monitor.  A person who can self-monitor is able to realize what he looks like to others and adapt his behavior accordingly.  He can see himself as if from the outside.  These people have the ability to argue in favor of an opinion they don't actually hold, or appear to be a different personality type than they are.  John has this ability in spades.  I have basically zero.  I never know how I'm coming across to people, and I wear my heart on my sleeve.  When I'm with others, I don't really have the ability to step back, pause, and consider how I appear ... I get overwhelmed and caught up in the moment and often end up putting my foot in my mouth.  I was inspired a little by this part to work on this skill (it is a skill one may acquire based on effort or circumstances, not necessarily an inborn trait).  But there was a warning given that self-monitoring is tiring.  An introverted person who uses this skill to do an extroverted job, like teaching or acting, should plan for lots of downtime to relax and return to his more comfortable mode of being.  (I see now why John was always so exhausted working as a bank teller, and never wanted to talk much when he got home.)

The section on raising introverted children was especially interesting to me.  If the experiment on reactivity holds true for my kids, Marko is extroverted and Michael is introverted.  I suppose time will tell with those two, but Michael is definitely much more reactive to stimuli like an unfamiliar noise or environment.  Marko loved going to school with me and seeing dozens of unfamiliar faces every day.  Michael bursts into sobs if the dog rattles his kennel or Marko drops something.  (The sound of Marko wailing in a tantrum, however, is so familiar to him we might as well put it on a white noise machine to help him sleep, haha.)  The author's advice was to encourage introverted kids to try new things, but not to push them into them before they're ready.  Go ahead and take them to play groups, but don't worry if they hang back on the edge of the group for awhile.  Let them practice and master a skill before being expected to show it off.  Don't give them grief for not being hugely popular or hanging out with friends every afternoon; accept their need to unwind with some quiet after school or social events.  She talked a little about how schools are catering more and more to extroverts, through constant group work and a very busy environment.  That made me glad we're homeschooling.  We can help our kids find the balance of social and quiet time that works for each of them.

That is only the tip of the iceberg of cool stuff I learned from this book.  I'd highly recommend it to everyone, because if you're not an introvert, odds are you know several of them either in your family or at work.  And our society needs the special contribution of introverts.


Anonymous said...

Its heartening to know I'm not the only one who was upset if someone smacked my dolls or stuffed toys. I always thought I was crazy. And I have lots of trouble to this day in looking at myself from someone else's perspective. I enjoy completely silent retreats and welcome them.

Yet, people think I am an extrovert because I had to project that when I worked.

At least I'm not crazy. Maybe I should get this book!

Enbrethiliel said...


I've never had any doubt that I was an introvert, although I have a job that requires a level of extroversion that leaves me exhausted at the end of the day. (I also become really chatty--well, okay, loud--around people I've become comfortable with . . . but it takes a while!)

When you started describing the "highly sensitive person," though, I didn't think that applied to me because I can be really oblivious about what's going on around me. (My mental world can be so much more interesting!) But then you got to the part about attributing emotions to animals, plants, objects and even body parts, and I thought, "Hey, that is me!" LOL!

Thanks for the review. It sounds like a great book! =)

PS -- That's an interesting point about Marko possibly seeing spanking as a reward. The nine-year-old boy I currently tutor has started acting up at school because he realised it gets him the attention he craves from his parents. (They are separated and his mother works late, so the only time he can control when he gets to see them is when they have to drop everything and yell at him! Unfortunately . . .)

The Sojourner said...

I am an introvert and also extremely shy (actually, I probably have social anxiety disorder, but that's a whole rabbit trail in itself). My husband is an introvert but not shy at all. He LOVES people and can talk for hours and doesn't mind at all that his workplace is very open. (He's a computer programmer, though, which is like THE nerd profession.) But when he comes home he just wants to sit with his computer and play videogames. (Meanwhile, I've been alone all day and want some nice low-key social interaction with a person who's not a scary stranger. I do have a very very tiny social interaction tank that needs to be filled from time to time.) But if you put him at a wedding reception or other party with loud music he turns into a total wallflower because the noise overwhelms him and he just wants to sit and observe, not interact. This used to make me mad because I rely on him to take the pressure off me in social situations by being his usual charming self. One of the few things I liked about "Quiet" was that it pointed out that introverts tend to be overwhelmed by stimuli in general, not JUST people. It helped me understand my people-loving husband.

Other than that, I was kind of frustrated with "Quiet." I think maybe because so much of the content was stuff I'd already figured out all on my own just from living for 22 years as an introvert. (I don't know if this is true universally, but in my very limited experience introverts tend to be more interested in personality theory and stuff than extroverts, perhaps because they are used to parsing social interactions rather than just interacting effortlessly and instinctively. So introverts KNOW that they're introverts.)

The part that was most interesting to me was the chapter about raising an introverted child. One of the most frustrating elements of my childhood was constantly being pressured to be more gregarious. I knew from a very early age that my parents worried about me because I didn't have enough friends. I didn't get why my 1 or 2 close friends didn't count as "having friends." To this day, the only time I have introvert/extrovert clashes are with family members. (My mother is an extrovert and I'm reasonably certain that my mother-in-law is as well.) Anyway, I love some sort of social handbook on how to deal with the extroverts in one's life. And perhaps some kind of flashy YouTube video for the extroverts on how to deal with introverts. (Yes, I'm being a little silly here. I <3 you, extroverts! Now leave me alone!)

I find this topic endlessly fascinating, so pardon me if I rambled.

The Sojourner said...

Commenting again just to subscribe.

Sheila said...

Enbrethiliel, not all introverts are highly sensitive (my husband isn't) and not all sensitive people are introverts (I'm probably not, I'm thinking... I just go back and forth on it). You might try taking the test on the link to Elaine Aron's website (

Sojourner, be fair ... extroverts are capable of reading books too! I think any business owner ought to read Quiet to realize how to get the most out of the introverts in his company. So should every parent or teacher. And I have to say, it helped me get into my husband's head a little bit. I understand him pretty well (because I am so sensitive) but I never quite got his introversion so much before reading that book. Last week we were in the airport together and we were both stressed and overstimulated. I immediately reached for my comfort source, i.e. his arm, and he shook me off. For a second I was hurt, but then I realized -- for him, arm grabs are just more stimulus at a time when he's already overstimulated. So I showed my love by taking care of check-in, and when we were out of the crowded line, that was the time for hugs. It didn't occur to me that it was about *stimulus,* not about strangers or noise specifically.

Your mention of social anxiety disorder makes me think. Maybe I'm an extrovert with social anxiety. I'm the world's chattiest person around people I know, but terrified of strangers, strange situations, loud noises, crowded rooms, etc. I was always a little shy but this was WAY intensified after boarding school. And then there's my family situation -- I grew up in a very quiet home with one very introverted brother. Then I got all these extra siblings, and they are ALL very extroverted and loud. Being around them for five minutes, all talking at once, makes me want to run outside and climb a tree! Only they would FOLLOW me.

I find this topic endlessly fascinating, so expect more posts to come on the subject!

The Sojourner said...

I'm sorry if I sounded mean; that was not my intention. And I didn't mean to imply that I think "Quiet" is a useless book or anything. It just wasn't useful for me and I might have gotten a little defensive about it since I have NEVER seen a negative review of it anywhere. Like, it's not the best book in the history of books, people!

In other words, it's not you, it's me.

Also, I feel very bad for shy extroverts or extroverts with social anxiety. I really don't suffer much at all from my shyness on a day-to-day basis. I just run into problems when I have to, you know, make a dentist appointment. (I'm terrified of talking on the phone and avoid it like the plague. Why do more people not use email?)

Sheila said...

No, you didn't sound mean. It just occurs to me most extroverts would get a ton out of this book. You know yourself well, but the rest of the world needs to hear your voice.

I HATE talking on the phone. I was thrilled to realize my doctor's office has a way to make appointments online. At least, until I found they never check their email. Sigh. Maybe soon they will find a way to eliminate any need for me to cold-call strangers.

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