Meet Maya. Susan Cain describes Maya as the “redhead with a ponytail, wire-rimmed glasses, and a dreamy expression on her face” (251). In a classroom group with talkative students, Maya is clearly the quiet one who holds back rather than offering her ideas freely to the group. When she does talk, she looks down or away and mumbles. She “sits curled up at the periphery of the group, writing her name over and over again in her notebook, in big block letters, as if to reassert her identity. At least to herself” (252). Truth be told, Maya is an excellent writer, a great softball player, and a kind tutor for others who are struggling academically. But she is an introvert in a school designed for extroverts in a world that idealizes the extrovert (252). As a teacher yourself, you recognize Maya.
Maya is one of several illustrative character studies in Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Maya’s story, of course, has to do with students, the classroom, interactions (or not) directly with other students and indirectly with the teacher. Although the book is not, strictly speaking, written for teachers, there is much teachers can translate to their classrooms from the relational situations and character analyses Cain describes. We meet child development researchers, teachers, students, inventors, CEOs, and employees who all live and work in situations that can help teachers recognize the traits of the Mayas in the world, learn to accommodate them, and find ways to maximize their strengths.
As one of the 30 to 50 percent of Americans who are introverts—definitions vary—Cain advocates for introverts in a world drawn to the socially adept, those who network easily and seem to be the life of the party. Introverts are the protagonists of the book. She wants them to know and celebrate that they too, perhaps unknowingly, have a power that resides in their contemplative manner, their thoughtful analysis of problems, and their quiet, out-of-the-mainstream creativity. She organizes her book into three sections: a definition of the problem, an analysis of it, and methods for introverts and extroverts to work together toward solutions.
The problem begins in nineteenth-century America’s transformation from a culture of character with an emphasis on who a person is (citizenship, honor, morals, integrity) to a culture of personality with an emphasis on how one presents oneself (magnetic, attractive, forceful, energetic) (23–24).
Cain presents three models of the twentieth-century introverts’ antagonists. The first is Tony Robbins, whose section in the book is titled “Salesmanship as a Virtue” and whose workshop slogan is “UNLEASH THE POWER WITHIN” (34). The Harvard Business School (HBS) is the second, nicknamed by one of its graduates the “Spiritual Capital of Extroversion” (44). Its modus operandi is to “act confidently and make decisions in the face of incomplete information” (45). The third model is Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, which is twenty-two thousand attendees strong: “If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love” (69). The first section ends with the effects of idolizing extroversion: groupthink, the “hivemind” (79), and an emphasis on collaboration and open office plans as they clash with creative personal thoughtfulness (though this is the model for the partnership of Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniac, an extreme introvert and the inventor of the personal computer). For teachers, the discussion encourages rethinking cooperative learning in an open classroom, which is patterned after the business model promulgated by HBS.
The second section of the book is an exploration and analysis of the roots and branches of introversion particularly and of extroversion more peripherally. Meet Jerome Kagan, an eighty-two-year-old psychologist, who, in a longitudinal study, demonstrated a paradoxical hypothesis about child development that has a bearing on the nature of extroversion and introversion. He introduced five hundred four-month-old infants to a variety of startling stimuli and predicted that the 20 percent who reacted strongly would become quiet teenagers. The 20 percent that were “low-reactive” would be outgoing teenagers, “relaxed and self-assured” (99–100). The reason for the paradox, says Cain, lies in the physiology of the brain; she explains these pertinent interactions in areas of the brain in the same clear, engaging style that characterizes the entire book.
From studies similar to Kagan’s and from the results of fMRI brain scans, Cain is
able to enter the thicket of the relative contributions of genes and environment to the character of the introvert. She also posits the potential role of the individual’s free will for pulling (by the student? with the help of the teacher?) the introvert personality toward the other pole like a rubber band (118). Meet Dr. Carl Schwartz, who continued Kagan’s longitudinal study and determined that, although “our inborn temperaments influence us regardless of the life we lead,” the elasticity that “Schwartz found in some of the high-reactive [introvert] teens . . . suggests [that] we have free will and can use it to shape our personalities” (117–18). Cain’s worldview has a dimension compatible with Christianity. Cain herself applies “free will” in her ability to control her persistent fears when she speaks on a public stage.
The third section of the book develops strategies for introverts in social situations: how to act more extroverted than you really are without compromising your identity, for one; how to talk to extroverts, for another. It includes a list of suggestions for parents in choosing schools for their children and a list of thoughts for teachers. But what is most valuable for teachers is what can be inferred from the people and situations in the book. (See the sidebar on page 24 for some of my own gleanings.) The reader’s ability to make such inferences is particularly encouraged and enhanced by the engaging character of Cain’s style and her clear, humane story-telling. The parents, students, scientists, teachers, and researchers she introduces are not just names on a page; they are extensions of her experience and analysis. The characterizations are pithy, insightful, colorful. They create an emotional involvement by forging connections to the reader’s life. The book is suffused with Cain’s personality and projects qualities at the heart of any good teacher: empathy, passion for teaching, and compassion for children.
We can infer that Maya’s teacher possesses these characteristics. She recognizes Maya’s gifts and engages with Maya through writing assignments, through Maya’s desire to help other students, and presumably even through Maya’s passion for softball. We are not told if this teacher has naturalized a portion of Maya’s environment where Maya and other introverts can feel more themselves. Perhaps to do so is difficult in any school designed for the extrovert. But Cain imagines how different Maya’s experience might have been if the group were smaller—two or three—and if the roles had been assigned instead of seized. And to complement the teacher’s involvement, Cain offers a number of hypothetical suggestions for Maya’s parents which, if adapted, the teacher could also use: practice with your child, role-play with your child, “explore real-life scenarios” (258). Parent, teacher, student, CEO, employee, husband, wife, speaker, audience—it takes a village, and this book presents readers with one.
Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Random House, 2013.
Dan Diephouse is Professor Emeritus of English at Trinity Christian College. He is currently part-time photographer, part-time gardener, all-around housekeeper, and gives poetry readings for the Hope Christian Reformed Church Adult Sunday School.
Helping Introverted Students Succeed in the Classroom
- Meet the introvert where he is. The book helps us discover what “where he is” looks like (243).
- Celebrate the introvert by reassuring her of her value and of the value of her values and preferences. Name her qualities for her and identify them as her qualities (254).
- Locate the “rubber band” of free will in the introvert and pull it by helping him articulate his sense of where he is and where, within himself, he wants to be (118).
- Reevaluate the open classroom concept as well as the exercise of brainstorming and collaboration in your classroom. Intentionally encourage the contemplative student engage in her own way in social interactions, but provide opportunities for the extrovert to engage in contemplative activities as well.
- Create retreat spaces, “restorative niches,” for the introvert to move to in order to restore his “true self” (205).
- Locate the core personal projects of introverted students—Maya’s concern for students less gifted than she is, for example.
 An fMRI is functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging which images the metabolic functioning of the organ, the brain in this instance. Comparatively, an MRI images the anatomical structure of the organ.