Interview with Susan Cain

December, 2012
Susan CainFormer lawyer Susan Cain left the corporate grind to pen a book about the flourishing inner life. A self-professed introvert who prefers a quiet one-on-one conversation to a noisy, crowded party, the debut writer presents her research and a rallying call to action in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. This nonfiction work explains why our culture favors extroverts but insists that introverts shouldn't feel a need to change their basic nature—all personality types have something valuable to contribute in the workplace and communities at large. Cain chatted with Goodreads about embracing her true self, mastering public speaking, and the swelling group of proud introverts she calls the Quiet Revolution.
Goodreads: We asked your readers to submit questions for you and received an outpouring of responses, many of which were personal stories from introverts who feel validated by the message of Quiet

Susan Cain: Every day is like another dam breaking in my inbox. Every time that someone tells me about their transformation—in their company, organization, or personally—I try to write it down. I have a whole file I keep that I call my Quiet Revolution file. 

GR: With a best-selling book and a TED talk that has ratcheted up millions of views, your work has had such a wide-reaching impact. Why has no one spoken up before?

SC: I think the reason people haven't been talking about it is the exact reason there is such an outpouring: It is fundamental to who we are. Introversion and extroversion are an identity as much as gender is. There is a social stigma to say that you are an introvert. There is this core feature of ourselves that people have not felt comfortable talking about. I think most introverts who are capable of passing as extroverts choose to do that and don't speak about their true selves. They may not even acknowledge it to themselves.

I experienced this within myself when I started writing the book. I was uncomfortable writing about it because it was inviting the world to see me through a lens that is a stigmatized lens. It's like everywhere I go now—"Oh, here comes the introvert." It's a funny way to be seen, and I had to get over my own discomfort to be able to speak about it publicly. It's like reclaiming the word "queer" or reclaiming the word "gay." It's learning to love it. That's why there is such an outpouring. It's basically making it socially acceptable to talk about something that hasn't been talked about before. 

GR: Taking back the pejorative.

SC: Yes, exactly. Taking control of your identity. 

GR: What was the trigger for you? When did you know you had to write this book? 

SC: I started writing it in 2005. It's funny. I stopped practicing [corporate law] in 2001; I started writing, and I wrote so many different things: a play, poetry, a memoir. I never tried to publish any of it. It's just sitting in my hard drive. Then I came to this book idea, and it was clear to me that this was the one I was going to try to publish. It became a labor of love. I'd never been published in my life, and I started working on this book proposal thinking I would be happy if someone would pay me $5 to read it. Then I got my first inkling of its impact when I found my literary agent and he started shopping it around. All the publishing houses went crazy over it because, when you think about it, most editors in New York are also introverted. There was an auction for the book because they all responded to it. 

GR: : You've spent a year doing lots and lots of public speaking. This is torture for some introverts; does it get easier with practice?

SC: It definitely gets easier with practice, even aside from the techniques. The process psychologists call desensitization: If there is something you're afraid of or uncomfortable with, keep on exposing yourself to that thing in manageable doses, and the thing loses its power over you. In my case, that thing is public speaking, and now I've done it so many times that it doesn't have the same effect as it used to. I've come to like it. 

A technique I like is letting yourself be yourself onstage and talking to someone you really care about. I don't think of myself as a natural public speaker, performer, or entertainer. But I am authentic, and when I am speaking, it's from a very heartfelt place. It's been really liberating. When I started out, I thought one needed to be a natural showman, and I've come to understand that that is not right. 

GR: In the book you describe how industrialization at the turn of the 20th century became a driving force in our transformation from a "culture of character" to a "culture of personality," which favors extroverts. One hundred years later, with larger and larger cities and modern lifestyles full of more and more stimulation, we're never going back to a pastoral, small-town rhythm. What hope is there that we can reverse the trend of favoring extroverted behavior? 

SC: I think we can, and it's not going to come out of lifestyle changes. It's going to come out of necessity. The things that introverts tend to do have to do with creativity, caution (introverts have an innate sense of caution), and a more reflective style of leadership. And we need these three things desperately, and people are starting to understand that we need them desperately. We're living in a time when people are craving innovation. People are starting to realize the unique value that introverts bring culturally and in organizations. The change is going to come about through consciousness rising. I think introverts are in the same place that women were in the 1950s or 1960s. The first tool that women used was consciousness rising. When you understand it, that's when things begin to change. 

GR: Introverts prefer lower levels of stimulation in their daily environment. Is the advent of the smart phone and social media a positive or a negative? 

SC: I see it as a sign of the overly extroverted society that we live in. People are so exhausted by demands of self-presentation that even extroverts long to communicate without having to be "on," having to present a face to the world. That's why people are so eager for things like texting, where we can communicate but we don't have to be "on." I think we are all socially exhausted. I think this is why yoga and meditation are as popular as forms of turning inward. Looking inward isn't wrong, but we've been made to feel it's wrong, so we've accessed it through these socially accepted outlets. 

GR: Goodreads member Marietta Engle says, "I wish I had been able to read Quiet 20 years ago! When I was a preteen struggling with my introverted identity, someone gave me How to Win Friends and Influence People. I struggled with it, finding little strength in the advice in contrast to so much I found in yours. Would you consider writing another version of your book for a younger audience?" 

SC: I'm already thinking about it actually. Yes, it is in the works. It's very much something that I want to do. I'm sure I'll be working on this Quiet Revolution for the rest of my life.

GR: How much is known about the neurophysiological differences between introverts and extroverts? You draw a parallel from accepting an introverted identity to accepting a gay or queer identity. Defining physical differences is sometimes controversial, sometimes helpful. 

SC: Whenever it comes to those controversies, including homosexuality, I feel that it is much more helpful than harmful to understand the differences because otherwise there is too much pressure for the marginalized group to conform to the dominant norm. I don't believe that people can change their stripes. Maybe to some extent, but not that much. I don't think that it's in anyone's interest for them to change. If you look at every single species in the animal kingdom, you'll see that there are introverts and there are extroverts. Evolutionarily speaking, the reason for that is, the two types of survival strategies. In some environments introverted animals do better, and in others extroverted animals do better. The same is true for humans, and we really do need both. If we can understand that these differences are programmed into us for an evolutionary viable reason, people start to think of it very differently. 

Based on an experiment: If you drop a trap in a pond, the introverted fish will swim to the sides of the pond because they are more cautious, and the extroverted fish will swim right into the trap because they are curious about what is going on. If the trap were a predator, it's the extroverted fish that would be eaten and the introverted fish would have survived. The same thing is true if you look at humans. If you look at Wall Street, for example, it's very often that you see the bold extroverts or the introverts who are good at acting like bold extroverts—it's easier for them to get promoted to act like the prototypical financier. But the fact is, we would all be better off if there were introverts who are more cautious and statistical in their thinking and their style. We're not that different from the fish at the end of the day. 

GR: Goodreads member Rachel Sparks asks, "If you could change anything about our educational system, what would it be?"

SC: Can I give you two? The first one is the general consciousness raising. I really would love teachers to understand that there is nothing wrong with introverted children; the job is not to change them into extroverts. It is how to teach introverts how to draw upon their own natural strengths. Secondly, I would like to see a good balance between group work and independent work. When I was in school, there was no group work. I had never seen it in my life. It was a trend that caught on after I was done with school. I hear often that people dislike group work.

GR: Several readers submitted pleas for dating advice for introverts. You've mentioned that you have an extroverted husband. Goodreads member Osayi Osar-Emokpae asks, "How do you encourage [introverts] who dread going to parties but feel that they have to go so that they can meet their potential spouse?"

SC: I think that introverts and extroverts are often drawn to each other. Research suggests that half of all married types are of one personality type and the other is introvert-extrovert types. It's quite common. There is a sense that one completes the other. Each one is strong at what the other is not. For me it's a good fit. I should say that there is a whole chapter of the book about conflicts that often come up for introvert-extrovert couples. We have one classic problem that when we drive, my husband likes the radio way turned up, and I like it much softer. It's a classic conflict that's much more easily managed when you understand where it's coming from. It's just a temperamental difference. 

GR: You agree to disagree at a certain point. 

SC: And to agree that neither one of you is crazy for wanting what you want. 

GR: Briefly describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

SC: My ideal writing day is, I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do is go to my favorite café. I love to write in cafés and libraries. I hate to write at home. I like the feeling of others around and having wonderful music playing softly in the background. I love feeling other people's energies, but I'm free to be left alone to do my own thing. 

I don't have unusual writing habits, but whenever I can, I write with a latte and a cookie or muffin or something. Over time I have come to associate writing with pleasure. People ask me if I get writer's block, and I really never do, and I think it's for this reason. Sitting down behind my laptop is my favorite thing to do. Even when a latte or a cookie is not available, the association between writing and pleasure is still so strong, it carries through.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you? 

SC: I really loved Colette when I was younger. There is little resemblance to my writing, but I really love her. Now I tend to read a lot of idea-based nonfiction. Next on my list is Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. I really like those types of books. I just read an amazing book that's coming out by Adam Grant. It's called Give and Take. It's about the power of generosity. Adam Grant is this amazing man considered one of the best social scientists of his generation. He's done amazing groundbreaking research about people who are naturally generous and wanting to help other people actually come out ahead, contrary to what we think. 

GR: What are you working on now? 

SC: I'm just starting the research for my second book, but I'm not really ready to talk about it yet. 


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