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Why silence is golden

February 10, 2012, 9:41 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.

“We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Extroverts rule in American society, which can make life difficult for those who aren’t comfortable imposing themselves, instantly and constantly, on their surroundings. Our celebrity-driven culture favors loud, impulsive, forthright folk and sets up social hazards for the quiet, thoughtful and reserved among us. As a result we’re swamped by the white noise of self-promotion, advertising, and so-called “news” about, mostly, celebrity.

Enter Susan Cain, a former Wall Street attorney who represented clients like JP Morgan and General Electric. That led to a career as a negotiations consultant, training everyone from hedge fund managers to TV producers. In QUIET — The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she sets her sights on the tribe she claims as her own, introverts.

Cain explores the issues, frustrations, and accomplishments of the (approximately) one-third of the population who fall on this side of the personality curve. Drawing on extensive psychological and sociological research, she explains why introverts act the way they do.

While not all of Cain’s evidence is new, much of it will be unfamiliar to lay readers. For example, a 1987 study of computer programmers found that the most productive coders generated 10 times more work than their least productive colleagues. The study found no correlation between productivity on one hand, and age, training, experience, or company on the other. Rather, the single biggest factor in their productivity was lack of interruptions. Makes sense, right? Computer programming attracts many introverts who like a quiet place to think.

Cain holds the reader’s interest with a steady stream of facts, interviews and stories about introverts who have adjusted (or not) to a loud, boisterous, casually connected society. She finds that introversion is more common and its defining values more valued in the Far East, a theme that emerges in interviews with Asian-American college students.

The author’s intimate knowledge of the corporate world fuels numerous useful insights for managers and HR professionals. For example, she notes that group brainstorming sessions and open-plan offices tend to suit extroverts but may have a chilling effect on more introverted colleagues.

The last part of the book is focused on teaching introverts how to cope in an extroverted society. Although the story drags a bit here, Cain offers a wealth of useful advice for teachers and parents of introverts.

QUIET should interest anyone who cares about how people think, work, and get along, or wonders why the guy in the next cubicle acts that way. It should be required reading for introverts (or their parents) who could use a boost to their self-esteem. Overall I think Cain will reach a wide audience. About a third of us, I suspect.