Show Hide image

The Books Interview: Susan Cain

The author of "Quiet" on introversion.


Your book, ironically, has got people talking a lot about introverts. What’s the difference between shyness and introversion?

Shyness is the fear of being judged. When shy people see the face of a stranger, they are much more likely to assume that face is disapproving. Introversion is when your sweet spot is an environment that is less stimulating, so you feel most energised when you’re in a quiet room by yourself or with close friends. 

You also write about ambiverts. How would you define ambiversion?

There isn’t a tremendous amount of research out there. I classify it as someone who feels they are in the middle of the spectrum [between introversion and extroversion]. If it’s an ambivert who has control of which way they feel and act, then they have the best of all possible worlds. But some ambiverts don’t have this sense of control over which self they are going to be at any given moment.

You say introverts often pretend to be extroverts. How do you differentiate between “self-negating”, as you put it, and adapting?

I think it’s a question of purpose. The psychologist Brian Little talks about how we all – for the sake of work we love or for people we love – sometimes have to act out of character. If you are an introvert acting for an extrovert, for those purposes, then it’s not self-negating. You’re doing it consciously and for a good reason. My book tour is a perfect example because it’s not natural to me to go out and be in the spotlight but I’m doing it for the sake of these ideas that I care a lot about. 

Do people ever transition from introvert to extrovert, or vice versa, over time? 

I think the shyness one feels in childhood is often overcome with time. There are children who hide behind their parents’ legs, but you don’t see grown-ups hiding behind people. It just doesn’t happen. I mean, not that often. People develop social skills over time. I did a lunch yesterday with a hundred people in the room and I wasn’t particularly nervous about it. That was the kind of situation that would have paralysed me years ago. So, you can become desensitised to your fears, you can develop social skills, but I think you’re still the same person underneath. Your preferences of how to spend your time are more or less the same. One way I put it is, I think people are a bit like rubber bands. We can stretch a little bit, the way rubber bands can stretch, but they can’t stretch indefinitely and at a certain point they snap. There’s a little room for moving along the spectrum, but it’s not infinite. 

You want society to accommodate introverts better. How?

We need to start by looking at schools. In the US, and I think to some extent here, the curriculum is so focused around group work. We need to introduce much more independent and autonomous work. I think that’s good for extroverted children, too. We need to do teacher training to educate them about what temperament means. Shyness is painful and you want to help a child with shyness – but the underlying temperament of being a careful, sensitive person is to be honoured, valued and respected. Parenting as well. It’s hard to be a parent of a quiet child because there is so much anxiety of “What will become of my child in this extroverted world?” And workplaces. We need to rethink office design from the ground up. 

You’re against the open-plan office? 

I think we have to admit it was all a big mistake. Let’s call a spade a spade. When an office moves over to an open-plan, it is presented to employees as “This is going to make you more creative”. OK, if you believe that, you believe it, but I think in many cases it is an economic issue. 

What about technology and social media – has it made the world noisier, or given a welcome platform and voice to introverts? 

Originally, technology was pretty clearly on the side of introversion. It allowed introverts to connect with people, to express their ideas in a less stimulating way: you’re sitting alone behind a computer. But I’m starting to think that the pressure to self-present constantly online is becoming so extreme. I don’t think it’s natural to self-present all the time. Nowadays, you can’t be a successful writer, artist or musician without being able to promote yourself. The Emily Dickinsons of yesteryear wouldn’t be able to do that.

Susan Cain’s “Quiet” is published by Viking (£20)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue