Reading Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet:The Power of Introverts’ As a Teacher

If you are anything like me-that is- curious about human nature, you’ve probably taken a few quizzes here and there that promise to help you find out whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert.

Perhaps, the results were never shocking to you, either. You already knew you were more of an introvert (or an extrovert), and the quiz merely confirmed what you’d suspected.

Titles like “10 Sings You’re an Introvert,” “The Best Way to Determine if You’re an Introvert or an Extrovert,” and “Am I an Introvert or an Extrovert” dominate the internet when you run a search for these two personality dimensions, first introduced by Carl Jung. Unless you’re interested in psychology and theory, however, it is unlikely to read any pieces that move beyond the stereotypical depictions of introversion and extroversion.

In her bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), lawyer and writer Susan Cain draws attention to such biases that permeate the society’s perception of what it means to be introverted or extroverted. There is “no all-purpose definition of introversion or extroversion, like “curly haired” or “sixteen year old”, in which everyone can agree on who qualifies for inclusion,” Cain notes, but:

Many psychologists would also agree that introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame.

Moving the focus away from the dichotomy between introversion and extroversion, as well as from what she calls the Extrovert Ideal, Cain highlights introversion as an empowering state of being.

She writes:

We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal–the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk taking to heeding, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual–the kind who is comfortable “putting himself out there.”

The starting point for Cain’s research is the fact many institutions today from schools to companies are designed for those who thrive on high sensory stimulation and social interaction–even though studies indicate that one third to one half of us are introverts. Most introverts, however, are well-trained in putting their “extrovert masks” on during these interactions, which gives us the illusion that the value system we live with is working perfectly for everyone.

Cain thus raises two crucial questions in this context: “From an evolutionary perspective, introversion must have survived as a personality trait for a reason– so what might the reason be?” and why do we still perpetuate the Extrovert Ideal despite the fact that we work and interact with more introverts than we think? Through interviews, credible research, and deep reflection, Cain delves deeper into the question of extroversion and introversion, contesting the notion that introversion is a “second-class personality trait somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” Even most introverts, she further highlights, perceive their temperament through these stereotypical depictions. As an introvert who has viewed her introverted nature as a strength for a few years now, I was happy to read and spread Cain’s message. Reading the book through the perspective of a teacher, however, brought to my attention how easily we forget our own experiences as students.

As I was reading Quiet, I realized how, like the majority of teachers, I too believed that my ideal student was an extrovert, the student who spoke out after I posed a question. How many times did I tell my students in class, “just say anything, whatever comes up to your mind, just speak” to receive the participation points? I’m not blaming myself or the teachers–we are trained this way. But the book made me wonder, when and how did I forget that I, as a student, preferred to take my time, think, reflect and then speak? This was how I functioned as a student, how I learned, created, and produced work–and it has worked wonderfully so far.

It has worked so far, yes, but not without challenges.

I remember my very first seminar as a graduate student during my first year in the U.S.

It was a fascinating class on women in medieval literature taught by one of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever worked with. The thing was, I dreaded going to that seminar. I spent the whole two hours feeling inadequate because I was the only student whose first language wasn’t English, and I wasn’t as loquacious as Jack from Grand Rapids, Taylor from Detroit, or Kathy from Ann Arbor who had already been working as the professor’s assistant for a year. The professor would ask an open-ended question, and all the students would jump in and speak and speak and speak. Someone would begin with an answer to the question and go off on a tangent, but that was okay, encouraged actually. Soon I realized that some of my peers brought up points that weren’t even relevant to the task, but they spoke nonetheless. I, on the other hand, would listen, reflect, and state my opinion only if I could get the chance to intervene.

After each class, I felt like a failure and revised my list of options that I’d created after the first few sessions. The list included three items:

1- withdraw from the course

2-quit grad school, return home and teach English as a second language

3- go for a master’s in sociology instead of literature

First year in master’s and PhD programs is inevitably arduous for international students. For most, acknowledging the hardship and asking for support is just as daunting; it could mean failure. And at that point, many international students cannot afford to fail. Who knows how much money they’ve invested in the process and how many people they’ve had to convince to get there–parents, friends, professors, visa officials, just to name a few. As an international student and a true introvert, I was not only getting acclimated to the workload and grad school life. I was also getting to know the brand new culture in which I’d found myself. As exciting as the whole experience was, it didn’t come without challenges, one of which was I was still new to speaking the language at all times.

Half way through the semester, I had a one-on-one meeting with the professor about the final essay. I was discussing my ideas and I said that I was planning to look at the text at hand through a postcolonial lens. She was nodding but when I said “postcolonial,” she paused. She leaned in closer, her eyes narrowing.

“What is it again? I didn’t get it?” She said.

“Um. Do you mean… ‘postcolonial’?” I said, the same way I pronounced it before.

“Oh yes,” she laughed, “I don’t even know why I asked you that! I knew you said postcolonial.”

Well, I really don’t know why she had that awkward moment, either.

But to me, the reason was crystal clear.

It was because I had a little bit of an accent? Probably.

But let’s face it, how can one pronounce “postcolonial” in different ways even if they have a thick accent? (And no, the irony isn’t lost on me–the word had to be postcolonial, right?). In that moment, I laughed with her and acted like it was fine. But, of course, as a struggling young graduate student, this interaction only amplified my foreignness in my own eyes, and I continued to doubt myself. Even though the professor consistently applauded my writing skills, letting me know how brilliant my theoretical analyses were and all my papers got As, she gave me an A- at the end of the semester.

The reason?

I didn’t participate in class discussions enough; a long paragraph on Blackboard explained how I should’ve spoken more during class discussions. Unlike most A students who feel upset about receiving anything other than an A, I felt that I deserved it.

Surely, I got better at participating in class discussions because my passion for books was my motivation, and I loved talking about books and literature. I also learned this foreign system of class participation that was not familiar to me at the time. But if I could go back in time, I’d hug my younger self, the oblivious 21 year-old, an introvert at heart who was taking her first seminar in the U.S, and tell her, it is okay that you don’t feel comfortable speaking up right now; it is okay that you don’t know how to intervene and interrupt; it is okay that you need to gather your thoughts first and then speak and even when you do, you are worried about how your accent sounds. Making noise literally is not a measure of your success as a writer and a thinker.

At the end of the semester, the professor’s feedback on my performance signaled to me that perhaps I didn’t belong there. It confirmed to me that being a good writer and making comments, albeit sparse, wasn’t enough to be in a master’s program. To be a scholar and to get a PhD, I needed to speak, discuss, and be bubbly in the classroom, even if that meant saying nothing of substance.

In the chapter on the American style of class participation in Quiet, Cain discusses an interview she conducted with Hung Wei, a Cupertino Mom who moved to America from Taiwan in 1979 to attend graduate school at UCLA. Wei tells Cain that she was hesitant to participate in class discussions because she didn’t want to waste her classmates’ time:

I was the quiet person there. At UCLA, the professor would start class, saying, “Let’s discuss!” I would look at my peers while they were talking noises and the profs were so patient, just listening to everyone […] I remember being amazed. It was a linguistics class, and that’s not even linguistics the students are talking about! I thought, “Oh in the U.S. as soon as you start talking, you’re fine.”

Not surprisingly, Wei’s experiences and culture shock after attending her first American seminar resonated with me on many levels. The whole chapter also reminded me of another professor with whom I worked, who was one of the reasons I persevered and went on to complete my studies.

Because of my experiences in the aforementioned seminar, I had begun the second semester in my master’s feeling insecure as a graduate student. However, I kept reminding myself why I was there in the first place: books, theory, analysis, literature; I lived for these. This time, I was taking a seminar, amongst others, on the Lost Generation and the 20s with a prominent Hemingway scholar. I was excited AND intimidated. After a few classes where I made a few statements here and there, I decided to talk to the professor about my inhibitions. At the beginning of one class session, he’d handed out a self-assessment sheet, which encouraged me to open up. So, I approached him after an engaging seminar on Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.

“I love this class, but I know I haven’t been active in class participation,” I said apologetically, “I’m not used to jumping in to class discussions like others. I do have a lot to say, but I usually need time to think and reflect before I say anything I deem meaningful.”

He listened intently. “Neri, you’re doing great in class so far,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “your writing is great, and your comments are meaningful. If you think you need to do more, you can always use Blackboard for anything else you need to add to the conversation.” We then went on to discuss a clip that we’d watched that evening on Shakespeare and Company.

I don’t think I can articulate how much I appreciated his approach; as an educator, he provided me with a space where I wasn’t pressured into speaking if I wasn’t ready. There were times in my seminars when I couldn’t even focus on the materials and I wasn’t fully present because I was too preoccupied about the comment I was going to make and when to make it. In fact, he gave me the space I needed to thrive. Of course, once the pressure was off, I felt more comfortable stating my thoughts and started to speak more. Isn’t that the way it works for most overachievers?

This anecdote is really a long way of saying that we forget easily, indeed.

Quiet has helped me revisit some of the seemingly insignificant moments that had an impact on my growth as an introverted student. As I was reading the book, I was reminded how crucial it is for me as a teacher to accept my students’ “weaknesses,” as well as their strengths. It is my responsibility to encourage them to see if what they view as a weakness can actually be turned into a strength. The examples Cain uses throughout the book indicate that most introverts, Cain herself included, learn how to navigate inherently uncomfortable situations like public speaking when/if they are involved in a type of work they’re passionate about. I think this is what has happened to me. My job gives me the opportunity to work independently; even when I’m in meetings with my coworkers and when I teach, I am mostly comfortable because the work I do is meaningful to me. But along the way, I may have forgotten how it feels to be given the message that being a successful student equals hyper-extroversion, and that the only way to participate in class discussions is by being talkative and bubbly– by making noise.

In this context, Quiet was the reality check I’ve needed–especially since we transitioned into online teaching following the pandemic. While reading the book, I made some changes to my participation policy. Instead of measuring my students’ participation by how much they make noise, I now give them the space to think and reflect. They can, for instance, share their thoughts and comments through the chat box on Zoom and still receive participation points. They are also free to post on a special discussion thread on Blackboard and receive participation points. What’s fascinating is that the number of students who have spoken up in live classes has actually increased since I implemented the updated policy, and I’ve already received messages from some students who wanted me to know how much they appreciate the change.

Quiet has reminded me: as much as we like to think that inclusive teaching as a pedagogical tool drives our syllabi and classes, we as teachers always need to take a step back and think if we are really giving the students the space and the opportunity to thrive as they are. The reality is that some students will take the opportunity and others will abuse it, but there’s no way for us to micromanage each case in any given situation.

If I’m encouraging one or two students in each class who are doubting themselves (which is common, since most of my students speak English as a second language) to value their various skills, if I’m giving them the space to explore what works best for them as they take ownership of their learning process, I am content. If I, as a teacher, prioritize “speaking” as the only means of participation, I’m overlooking some students’ strengths while giving them the message they will not receive full points for participation unless they conform to the Extrovert Ideal.

If the professor in my The Lost Generation seminar hadn’t created the space that enabled me to express myself, who knows, maybe I would’ve given up and returned home to Turkey before it was time. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage to write a thesis and pursue a PhD, which means I wouldn’t be doing what I love at the moment. I believe I owe it to my professors who have given me the space to be who I am, and I’d like to do the same for my students who are struggling in a similar way. In Quiet, Susan Cain does more than encouraging teachers, managers, and those in a position of power to do just that by being more open and inclusive. She also inspires. She ends the book with the following lines, reminders if you will, which will also be my closing lines for this post:

Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. Work with colleagues you like and respect. Scan new acquaintances for those who might fall into the former categories or whose company you enjoy for its own sake. And don’t worry about socializing with everyone else. Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity

The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural poets–of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity–to dowry you love and words that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply […] Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they are difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you’re done.

Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on NYE if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintance. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story

If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students. But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasts for chemistry sets or parrot taxonomy or the 19th century art.

They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow.

Have you read Quite ? What did you think?

If you’re a teacher, I’d love to hear about your experiences and tips for inclusive teaching.


More on Susan Cain:

Quiet on Goodreads

The Power of Introverts, Cain’s Ted Talk

Quite Revolution Webpage

A Conversation with Susan Cain on Incandescent Review

Interview with Susan Cain, author of Quiet on The Highly Sensitive Person Podcast

9 thoughts on “Reading Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet:The Power of Introverts’ As a Teacher

  1. neri – you so spoke to me with this. I read her book about 10 years ago, when I was in my 50s, after hearing her speak on npr. suddenly, it filled in the blanks of why some things had been a struggle for me my whole life, that seemed so natural and easy for others, that I thought there was something wrong with me. all through school, especially when young, my teachers would write on my report cards, “beth is clearly bright and enjoys learning, but never speaks in class. she is shy and hopefully will grow out of it.” or some version of those notes. with you not having English as your first language, your challenge in grad school must have increased tenfold. once I read her book, I finally understood that I was an introvert, I needed downtime alone to recharge, I prefer real conversations with one or two people over a room of people chit-chatting, a fear of public speaking to a group, etc. when I go to parties, I’m already thinking of when I’ll be home and in my pajamas with a book. ) when I discussed my revelation with family, friends, and colleagues, most couldn’t believe it! they said, you are an extrovert, you are not shy, you love people, you are fun, you are spontaneous, etc. when I explained the real definition of introversion, and how we are able to function in a celebrated extroverted world, they began to understand.

    I worked my way through school as a waitress and caterer, while single mothering, so I had to muster up all my skills to wade my way through. I then worked in advertising, and I loved the creative side, but not the presentation and corporate side. I then went to um in ann arbor for grad school to become a teacher and love every day, now teaching students from all over the world, and I give plenty of time and space for my little students (3s and 4s) to show their understanding and thoughts in a way that is best for them, verbal or not. sorry this has been so long, I just wanted to say what an impact this book had on me and understand my place in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for the note, Beth. I can see that you too felt liberated (despite the continuing challenges of course) once you figured out that you were indeed an introvert and that being an introvert just meant different ways of interacting with people, different preferences.

      It didn’t come as a surprise to me that your friends and family couldn’t believe it—I have had similar responses! The issue is the misconception that perpetuates all the stereotypes that Cain discusses in the book. An introvert who enjoys talking to people still seemsb like an oxymoron to most people.

      It makes my heart happy that you’ve found your calling by becoming a teacher. Your students are very lucky to have you as their teacher!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Didn’t read the book, but as an introvert, I probably should. Sometimes I think extroverts talk of mostly nothing of value almost constantly, but perhaps there is some bitterness behind being expected to smile and chat with any passerby simply because I am a woman in America. It must be so different a life in some places where women are expected not to talk to a passerby. I don’t know which is better or worse, but I do know the expectation to be friendly as a female has chaffed like a yoke over the years. Loved the post, got to read the book “someday”. 📗

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand you both so deeply Beth and Neri, I too have experienced the same thing. I can do forced interactions, small talk and silly conversations mostly, but find it incredibly taxing and exhausting. The coronavirus was for me a perverse blessing because it meant not having to interact daily with people. I felt my heart break a little Neri reading that Neri about being in University and the othering that goes on there if you don’t fit the mould of being outgoing. I felt an othering at University mainly for being working class and being the first in my family to finish high school let alone attend University, and a massive amount of imposter syndrome because of that. I know it’s a cliche to say but isn’t it the case that these experiences make you much stronger, more empathetic to others, more caring. Take care xxx😽

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry that you felt isolated at uni! I do think that the higher education system in most countries operates in a way that otherizes most students. And I absolutely agree that these experiences make one stronger and a better human, really. I did learn a lot from all my experiences as an international student in the U.S. and I’m a better person and a better teacher as a result. Thanks so much for the note ❤ and take good care!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Content Catnip Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s