Listening for the softer voices

Jan. 11, 2014 @ 01:27 PM

Both my son and daughter inherited my husband’s introvert genes and, to be honest, I’ve long guessed I might have a stash of my own. While I thrive on presenting, I get tired quickly in the bustle of the world, am uncomfortable at big parties and lost when it comes to cocktail party conversations. Listening to Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” (Random House, 9 CDs, 10.5 hours) clarified and confirmed my feelings.
It was my son who clued me into Cain’s work when he urged me to listen to her Ted talk,(http://www.ted.com/talks/susancainthepowerofintroverts.html. Her presentation had spoken loudly to my son, who works for a large corporation and rarely seeks center stage at larger meetings.
I suspect that with all the dominance-seeking in the room he would probably have a hard time getting attention. His natural tendency toward being contained taught him something. Because he listens more than he talks, he comes away from these meetings with a good snapshot of the opinions and ideas of the whole group.
This perception intrigued me and as I listened to Cain’s Ted talk. This was, I soon learned, an act of courage for her, for as she says, “it’s not my natural milieu.” That fact is made obvious as her voice trembles and she clutches a suitcase of books like a security blanket. The suitcase contains her grandfather’s favorites. Because he was wise, introverted and a speaker, these anchor her. Still since her book’s publication, as Cain announces in the talk, she bravely committed to a “year of speaking dangerously.”
At the end of her Ted talk, Cain called for people to stop the madness of constant group work. That struck home for me, but not in a particularly good way. For years I have found pride in the collaborative writing process that I use in classrooms. I have seen the gifts that come from one person suggesting ideas because those inspire other’s ideas, all of these together yielding richness in the story stews we create. I welcome student’s many thoughts and suggestions and the opportunity these give for discussion and decision making. I’ve evolved ways to make sure everyone is involved, but after listening to Cain’s Ted talk I wondered, am I really reaching the introverts? I suspected not! So I wanted to listen to Cain’s book.
When my book club decided we’d read Cain’s “Quiet,” we had a fascinating pre-book conversation after we all took Cain’s quiz. The quiz, by the way, is not on the audio, but you can find it easily on Cain’s website. According to that quiz, I am an amibivert, having fairly equal qualities of both the extrovert and introvert. When I told my husband that I tended to introvert, he laughed because he’s so introverted his best friends are the deer who run through our yard periodically. My introversion may not be clear to him, but as I read Cain’s book I saw myself in the need for contemplative time and the sensitivity that dominated my childhood. How many times did I hear my parents tell me, “You’re just being oversensitive?” 
Though Cain’s speaking out, wisely she does not put herself (and potentially listeners) through the torture of reading her book. Kathy Mazur does so with the perfect representation of Cain’s powerful words. Mazur’s voice is steady and she easily negotiates the many layers of Cain writing. Scientific theories and the history of personality studies are woven into her real-life investigations of the introvert and extrovert worlds. With a bit of remove and some humor, she attends and records thoughts about Tony Robbins’ charismatic, fist-pumping workshop where Robbins, “the extrovert ideal,” encourages the many conference attendees to “UPW” (unleash the power within). Cain interviews an introvert to give another view of the Harvard Business School where so many students “stride” through their campus and studies. She visits and interviews an introverted evangelical leader, dismantling several stereotypes at once.
I wonder if Cain’s writing doesn’t benefit from all her years of listening and observing.  She gives a marvelous fly-on-the-wall perspective of a workshop offered just for introverts, conveying a felt sense of the experience through myriad specifics. She stresses the benefits of both extrovert and introvert modalities in terms of both physiology and psychology in a way that a not-so-scientific sort such as myself could easily grasp and appreciate.
I finished the book feeling that Cain is speaking more loudly for those of the introverted persuasion though, of course, that is the perspective she knows personally and more clearly. My least favorite parts were when her voice lost quiet and gained an edge of shrill. However, she did make her point. I, for one, will be listening more carefully for those softer voices.