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Give us some space, and respect, proud introvert argues

The child who prefers a book to a birthday party? Ask her what she wants to read. The quiet employee who dreads the open-office designs so in vogue these days? Give the man a cubicle!
/ Source: Reuters

The child who prefers a book to a birthday party? Ask her what she wants to read. The quiet employee who dreads the open-office designs so in vogue these days? Give the man a cubicle!

So argues Susan Cain in her new book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Rather than labor fruitlessly to make introverts something they're not, parents, teachers and employers should in fact encourage the dreamier among us, the author -- and proud introvert -- says.

Rosa Parks, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling, Charles Schulz -- Cain says introverts do fine once they find their mode of expression.

Introverted? Let it be.

If we don't, Cain suggests, we could not only be stifling tomorrow's Eleanor Roosevelt, W.B. Yeats or Steve Wozniak, but impairing their mental and physical health as well.

Moreover, she says, the quiet world of the introvert has its own rewards. If people had listened more to their inner introvert, she writes, maybe Wall Street might have avoided the financial collapse in 2008.

"One thing he's not shy about," Cain says of another introvert she knows named Boykin Curry, managing director of an investment firm, "is his thesis that it was forceful extroverts who caused the global financial crash."

Cain says Western - and in particular, American - culture is dominated by what she calls the "Extrovert Ideal," described as "the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight."

Introversion, by contrast, is thought to be "a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology."

"Quiet" is not a scientific tract. But Cain, who grappled with her own introversion as a Wall Street attorney, draws from a wide array of academic research, enlivened with colorful anecdotes, to describe how American culture got to this point.

Cain traces the roots of her "Extrovert Ideal" to the rise of industrial America in the later 19th century. Before that, a more agricultural society held up understated values like self-discipline and stolid personal honor as ideals.

Since then "a perfect storm of big business, urbanization and mass immigration" has morphed America into a "Culture of Personality," so named by historian Warren Susman, in which perception trumps truth.

Cain points to everyday items like self-help books and advertising to illustrate her point. Once, Cain writes, print ads were straightforward product announcements, such as "Eaton's Highland Linen: The freshest and cleanest writing paper."

By the 1920s, ads were commonly starting to focus on what she calls "the hostile glare of the public spotlight."

"All around you people are judging you silently," Cain quotes from one rather paranoid 1922 ad for soap.

Cain cites some studies that suggest introverts may be born more than made. She tends to agree.

"We can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point," Cain writes. "Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton, no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer."

Cain also points to the conservative, respectful Confucian heritage of Asia, as seen in many quiet Asian students in the United States. Chinese high school students prefer friends who are humble, altruistic and honest, Cain writes of one study, while American high school students seek out the cheerful, enthusiastic and sociable.

"In the West, we subscribe to the Extrovert Ideal," Cain writes. "While in Asia (at least before the Westernization of the past several decades), silence is golden."

True to an introvert nature, "Quiet" has a self-help feel.

"Don't mistake your child's caution in new situations for an inability to relate to others," Cain advises parents of young introverts. "He's recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not from human contact."

For introverts forced to leave their comfort zone at work, she endorses psychologist Brian Little's recommendation to find "restorative niches," such as taking quiet breaks between sales calls, cancelling social plans before a big meeting at work, or practicing yoga.

Or perhaps find a line of work more suited to your personality, as Cain did?

"I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country," she writes. (Editing By Peter Bohan)