Susan Cain made a bit of news a few years ago when she gave a TED talk about introverts, trying to upset the extrovert ideal in America. She’s not wrong about some of the things she is saying, but I feel like maybe she’s doing it the wrong way.
I can’t figure out who this book is for. There are a lot of descriptions about what it means to be an introvert — which if you are one, you already know. There are also large sections of advice on how to survive in an extroverted society, which, again, if you are an introvert you’ve probably already figured out.
That’s not to say that there is no good advice in this book. Some of the things she says make a great deal of sense. The problem is that we have a binary descriptor for a personality trait that has a spectrum as wide as the population of the earth. Nobody is just introverted or extroverted. I work in a place that is almost solely engineers, and engineers tend to be introverted people by nature — being careful to avoid stereotype, you are probably only a little more likely to come across introverts among engineers than in the rest of the population. What this book has done, for me, at least is given my managers and directors a better understanding of why we complain when they start talking about cubicles with waist high walls. That’s something I’m grateful for.
The problems that I have with the book are in the obvious biases. The first bias is that Cain seems to paint introverts with positive brush strokes and extroverts with a broad backstroke of negative (this might be my perception). She describes introverts as thoughtful, calm, caring and friendly while extroverts are just constantly talking without having anything relevant to say. Being taciturn by nature I tend to agree that a great deal of people talk about inanities that have little meaning (“Hi, how are you? Great, you? Nice dress/shoes/hair/etc. Did you see the game last night…”) however I think that extroverted people must have more to them than that, after all estimates say that possibly seventy percent of people are extroverted. The bias feels like Cain is either trying to convince extroverted people that they should act more like introverts or she’s trying to tell introverts how awesome they are.
The other bias I see is the bias of telling everything like a story. This is a background problem. Susan Cain is a lawyer and she argues her points like a lawyer. She states the case and presents example after example that seems to bear witness to the theory that she is proposing. However there is very little scientific evidence that shows what she is positing — at least in this book. There may be tons of studies with double-blind control groups and peer reviewed research papers but Cain doesn’t talk about it. She doesn’t cite any sources, she doesn’t do any math. She just tells stories. Stories that most of us already know because we’ve lived them.
I think this is an important book because it has brought national attention to another fundamental difference in personality types and it has shown executives and decision makers that not everybody works better in an open office with a lot of distractions. That’s a big plus. It’s not a research journal, it’s not a summary of scientific evidence, its a case for introverts with a little advice thrown in.
It’s a good book. If you identify as introverted then read it to help you understand why you make the decisions you do. If you feel you are an extrovert read it to understand why your kids don’t want to go to a friend’s house after school. You will definitely learn from the book and it will make you more conscious of yet one more way in which people can be diverse, which is never a bad thing.