Review of Quiet by Susan Cain
By COYLE NEAL
Do you prefer your own company to that of others? Do you prefer a quiet evening at home to a drunken kegger? Do you wish that in addition to blocking sight the walls of your office blocked sound and other evidences of human existence? If so, you are an introvert, and probably also a sociopath on the way to becoming a full-fledged serial killer. Or at least, that’s what the culture would have us believe with its “extrovert ideal.”
On the contrary, argues Susan Cain in her book Quiet, introverts are not only just as normal as everyone else, they actually have important—even critical—contributions to make to culture and society. In fact, we should reconsider the whole “extrovert ideal” in favor of a more balanced culture that draws on the strengths of introverts and extroverts alike.
Well-researched, well-written, and clearly a work of love, Quiet is an excellent read that I highly recommend to the introverted and the extroverted alike. Whether you’re an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’, you’ll find much to think about in this book as you are challenged to reconsider what you think of as valuable in the world in terms of business, religion, politics, and education. Drawing on psychological and cultural studies, as well as quite a bit of testimony and personal experience, Cain’s book is well worth your attention.
Cain talks a bit about the extrovert ideal in the church, using Saddleback and Rick Warren as the picture of the triumph of the outgoing pastor and a congregation with functionally no place in which introverts can ever be truly comfortable. (By contrast, of course, we might picture the Medieval monk in his cell having taken a vow of silence and interacting with no one outside his conscience. Clearly, Christianity has not always embraced an extrovert ideal.) If it is indeed the case that Saddleback is representative and Christianity has by and large adopted the extrovert ideal, how on earth should we respond?
I think part of the problem here is one of categorization. When thinking in terms of Christianity, the absolute categorization of either an introvert ideal or an extrovert ideal falls flat. This is because there is both an introverted and an extroverted component to the Gospel.
On the one hand, Christians ought to be extroverted. This is true not only because we are expected (even commanded) to engage with others in sharing the Gospel, but also because the very foundation of our faith is someone external to us coming along, dragging us out of ourselves (it’s even more violent than that—the Bible uses the language of putting the old person to death) and planting us firmly in a non-optional relationship with another person (Jesus) and a group of other people (the church). In a very real sense, there is no ‘alone time’ for the Christian—something which no doubt causes many introverts to shudder in panic. In this sense, the Gospel has a quite necessary extroverted component.
On the other hand, Christians ought to be introverted. We are responsible for our own spiritual lives—the commands to be holy and fight against sin are not Biblical charges to take up political crusades against institutional evil. They are rather directions for examining our interior lives and casting off those aspects of ourselves which continue to persist in rebellion against God. And of course part of this process is being slower to speak, being aware of our own sinful nature, and being on guard against allowing that sinful aspect of ourselves to take control of our tongue and actions (in one sense, the serpent in the Garden was the chief of extroverts—he projected his personality onto others in an attempt to remake them in his own image). Likewise, quiet meditation on Scripture, solitary prayer, and reflection should all increasingly be aspects of the Christian life. In this sense, the Gospel has a quite necessary introverted component as well.
In light of these dual aspects of the Gospel message, how should Christians think about applying the popular ideas of introversion and extroversion in a social context? Cain’s book provides an excellent starting point for asking important questions such as: What is the balance between the introverted and extroverted aspects of our public life, both individually and as a church? How much should we share the Gospel verbally (which we should do), and how much do we share it by our quiet example of piety, humility, and obedience (which we should also do)? Even more, how much have we bought into the cultural ideal of either introversion or extroversion and then made that the foundation of the church? Do we like or dislike our church because either someone went out of their way to introduce themselves and ask about our lives? Or do we like or dislike our church because we are left alone and not harassed by those cheerfully annoying hand-shakers? How do we think about the availability, friendliness, and overall personality of church leadership? Do we place a great premium on how engaging or peaceful the worship elements of the service are? In any of these cases, have we elevated a social norm above the faithful preaching of the Gospel? I don’t mean to say that these things are irrelevant—at any time they may end up being critical issues the church has to deal with. It’s just that, in general, they need to be kept in their proper place. Cain’s book is, as I said, helpful in highlighting ways these issues may arise.
And a closing personal note: I should probably confess that based on both my own limited introspection and the quiz on page 13, I am neither an introvert nor an extrovert (more of a “non-trovert,” I guess). This may be because of the vague contempt in which I hold mankind in general. Or it may be because I’m apathetic and lazy, and am fully capable of being so whether or not surrounded by other people. Most likely, however, it may be because I am a narcissist. I’d say that I struggle with pride, but that would just be a lie—pride and I get along just fine, thank you very much. As a result, I can be comfortable either by myself (because I am awesome) or with others around (so they can bask in my awesomeness). You think I’m kidding, but unfortunately, that’s actually not much of a stretch (though my wife is working on it).* The point is, I’m coming at this book as a relative outsider to the whole introvert/extrovert discussion. So please take my thoughts for what they’re worth—this may be one of those issues best discussed by those with a stake in the outcome.
*Proof of my narcissism: it took most of my willpower to move the paragraph about me from the beginning of the review to the end.
Dr. Coyle Neal lives in Washington, D.C., where simultaneously both wishes that more Americans would shut their cake holes and steadfastly refuses to be the first to do so.