Book Review: Quiet

QuietTitle: Quiet
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown (Random House, Inc)
Original publication in: 2012

Date read: July 27th – August 1st 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is a book on introversion and extroversion and would benefit both – introverts to understand themselves better and extroverts to understand their introverted loved ones and co-workers and themselves better.
Granted, the focus lies more heavily on introversion but I learned a lot about extroversion from this book, too.

Following topics will be discussed in the book, all backed by lots of scientific and psychological studies, interviews and example stories:

  • the difference between introversion and extroversion, and how to benefit from both – who is a better leader? How can a corporation make the best of both types?
  • nature or nurture?
  • cultural difference between the U.S. and Asian countries – different values, different environments
  • sensitivity and how it relates to introversion
  • how to help introverted children as a parent and / or educator
  • “faking” extroversion – how, why and when
  • Free Trait Agreement

I went into the book being bewildered and came out feeling awed.
I generally don’t enjoy non-fictions much because they rely heavily (as they should) on scientific findings and studies and theories I have no idea about. But Susan Cain carefully weaves a personal anecdote and others’ stories here and there, making the book more well-rounded and smooth. It is so well done that she doesn’t miss a beat. Each section somehow relates to the preceding and following section. It was informative, insightful and like a lightbulb going on in my head.

The following ramblings are my personal story regarding introversion:
In one of my first posts, I “diagnosed” myself as an introvert with extrovert qualities. After reading Quiet, I think I’m an introvert with high sensitivity and a rather high self-monitor. I guess it sounds gibberish if you haven’t read the book.

I’m an introvert because I am more often than not put off by high stimulation – I prefer the quiet and I can spend A LOT of time being alone, doing my things and I’m perfectly happy (unlike my friends, who text me several times a week, asking me to go to a lake (Berlin lakes are NOT beautiful – they are infested with mosquitoes and the water is muddy and so many people swim in them. Lakes are NOT my type.), a festival, cinema, etc.).
I have always been the quiet, reflective and serious kid – and Susan Cain’s right, that type is highly praised in Asia. I spent my first eleven years (and later one winter and two summers) in South Korea, and when I was six, I asked my parents how humans came to existence. They called me “the little philosopher” and my mom claims I had that “serious gaze – like an adult’s”. A person who passed by told my mother that she was sure I was going to be professor.
Since the overall atmosphere in Korea was more subdued (It’s another story altogether now – the youth is getting bolder and more rebellious. Damn it, that makes me sound so old.), I got on capitally at school. I had four best friends during my four-and-a-half years at my Korean elementary school (김민형, 안용진, 정유경 그리고 엄지선. 애들아 ~ 보고 싶다!) and was well-liked by many pupils.
That all changed when I came to Germany. Class participation. Small-talk. It’s not like Koreans are all monks with calm facial expressions and noiseless streets. OH NO. Not at all. It’s very loud, and people are also very loud. At the markets, sellers chatter with customers, at school you talk with your friends about all kinds of things. But it’s okay to be quiet. No one judges you (okay, hardly anyone) or tells you to be more talkative. And NO ONE ASKS YOU IF YOU ARE OKAY WHEN YOU ARE QUIET. I hate that with passion when my friends ask me if I’m okay when I am mulling over something in my mind. Am I depressed? Do I want to talk about it? No, dammit. I’m perfectly fine, thank you very much.
I also have the feeling that the friendships I had shared with my friends in Korea were more intimate and personal even at that young age (7 till 11) than my friendships now at this grand age of 19. To be honest, part of it lies also in the cultural difference, which is for another post.

Along with serious and quiet, I also have been quite sensitive to other people’s remarks. Even if they are well-meant, I bristle at them because I automatically hear them as slight condescension or criticism. I also can’t take yelled criticism and accusations, even if they are mostly true.
Being sensitive to what others think of me resulted in having a poorer self-image than it actually is. I remember at my Abiverleihung when people clapped extra loud for me and I chalked it up to the teacher announcing that I was the second-best student of the graduating year. A friend of mine told me – a different time, different place, different context – that “everyone likes you – do you think they would have clapped with that much of enthusiasm if they didn’t?” I hadn’t even thought of that possibility because, well, I didn’t know many of them that well. Sure, I talked a lot in class (having overcome my fear of class participation, at least when I’m comfortable with my classmates) and I was friendly to everyone I came in contact with but I thought most of them dismissed me as “Ah, Eugine. The Asian genius.” (I’m not, actually.) But maybe the extroverted students only saw the side I presented and didn’t think to look past that. Maybe that was enough for them to like me?

The wonderful thing about Quiet is that thanks to Susan Cain, I’m beginning to realize that my personality isn’t something I have to work at, to correct. I guess deep down, I always thought I was somehow a freak because I’ve had so many difficulties with social interaction. I frequently fretted about how other kids might perceive me – too aloof, too eager, too serious? I’m not a funny person. I can’t crack a joke to save my life and I find most jokes so lame, I don’t even try to laugh. Does that make me boring? Do they think I think too highly of me to laugh at their jokes? You get the picture.
Yet I maintained that shield that I held in front of me to hide the really geeky and bookish side of me. I learned to do this the hard way.

At first I was determined to stay honest. So when someone asked me what I did over the weekend (another thing I SERIOUSLY HATE. People expect you to answer in following fashion: Oh, on Friday I went to a club with my friends and had a capital time. On Saturday me and my boyfriend / girlfriend went to a bike tour and then had a small picnic. On Sunday my grandparents came to visit us and we showed them the city!) I said “Oh, you know. The usual. Did homework, read books.” They always asked “Oh, what book did you read?” and I would name a title. Since I love English books but live in Germany, chances are, they don’t know the book. And they always asked what the book is about – and I was almost tempted to tell them what they can do with their politeness, especially because they always, always, turned their gaze away and only half-listened when I rambled on how marvelous the book was. I usually stopped mid-sentence and just asked back “So how was your weekend?”, which was all my conversation partner had wanted in the first place.

I was always looked at funnily if I had nothing “interesting” to report about my weekend. And since I can’t lie to save my skin and I don’t want to lie (another confirmation to Susan Cain – my conscience clings to me like a lost puppy. Like a lost and frightened puppy. Lost and frightened puppy that is hungry and has found a soul-master in me.), I just shrugged and said “Nothing of importance.” each time I was asked that dreaded question every Monday. It is still my standard answer because it has become a habit. It’s easier to say that than to explain why I prefer books to jogging, sports and meeting friends.

In order to make up for that “fault”, I focused more on encouraging others to talk about themselves and was a seemingly attentive listener. I always thought about what questions I could ask which person. When my classmates complained about a teacher, I joined in, even though I personally thought that she / he wasn’t that bad. (Yeah, my conscience bowed to social pressure.) Every morning I tried to be cheerful and most of the time I failed miserably because my facial muscles wouldn’t budge. I felt like a clown – why do I have to smile all the time?
In the end, I faked so well that nobody thought I was anti-social and that I fooled even myself to thinking I liked being social. It’s not like I hate everyone. I just prefer to do without people, especially without masses of people. These months of tranquility have shown me what I truly am – an introvert. Now that I am armed with this knowledge and the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I will face the upcoming university years choosing when to be social and when to retreat. I’m learning my limits, and what feels good to me. I’m entering a Free Trait Agreement with myself. Whoopee!

P.S.: Emma Watson is also an introvert – how cool is that? I never would have guessed!

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