Sunday, 26 July 2015

Thoughts on Quiet

I've read some glowing reviews about Susan Cain's Quiet - it seems to be a book that many American introverts find liberating or empowering. Along the lines of "I didn't know it was OK to be the way I am but then I read this book."

For me, a Finnish introvert, this book is not so much an insight into my own personality but an eye-opener into American culture. As I was reading the book, I marvelled at the differences between my home country and the American culture. I have not had to 'fake' extroversion to the extent described by Cain, even if I have sometimes felt a pressure to be less shy (but shyness is not the same as introversion).

In Finland, introvert personality traits are seen as normal. Cain even mentions Finland as a "famously introverted nation." Perhaps the extroverts have felt more out of place here, and their behaviour has been viewed as more problematic at school and at some workplaces. (Actually, in a recent article in Helsingin Sanomat (link in Finnish only), the Finnish extroverts interviewed talk of those kinds of experiences.)

Cain contrasts the American extrovert culture to Asian cultures, represented by her Asian-American interviewees. She connects their respect for quietness and introversion to the high value they place on being a member of a community and maintaining harmony within the community. Conversely, the Extrovert Ideal seems to go hand in hand with Western individualism: "Westerners value boldness and verbal skill, traits that promote individuality."

But in Finland, this equation does not hold. We can be both fiercely independent and individualistic as well as introvert. Stereotypical Finns are loners who prefer to set up their homes in the wilderness, miles away from the next neighbour. We tend to love uncrowded places. Of course a lot of us have become city dwellers - and we can live in a community and value it and behave politely with one another - but wherever you live, it's normal to want solitude in order to recharge.

The traditional image of a powerful Finnish businessman is a quiet man who only speaks when he has something important to say. (As a side note: The Finnish Silent Strength has been traditionally more associated with men.) Slick talkers have been viewed with skepticism and suspicion. Of course, the gift of the gab is alright for people who want to entertain others, for example comedians or salespeople at their market stalls who are trying to attract more customers... But if you want to be taken seriously, speak less and be matter-of-fact: let your facts speak for themselves.

But along the traditional Silent Strength, the Culture of Personality and the Extrovert Ideal have slowly entered Finland, too. Partly through the American-made entertainment we have so eagerly consumed, partly through the globalization of business? More and more Finns find themselves trying to sell their products, ideas and services to American businesspeople, and then they realize that facts do not, after all, always speak for themselves. Something else is needed to succeed outside Finland.

Reading Cain's book made me wonder what will happen to the Finnish Silent Strength. From her description, it seemed to me that the Finnish traditional culture is/was not very different from what the American was before the Culture of Personality took over. And now, even here, the Culture of Personality is a growing trend. People are posting their vlogs on YouTube, participating in reality TV shows, hoping to become famous.

I can't imagine us changing as a nation so completely that we'd adopt the Extrovert Ideal to the extent that Cain depicts. Would it be possible for Finland to find some kind of golden mean? To be a culture where both introverts and extroverts can thrive, find themselves accepted and appreciated?

I hope so.


  1. I loved Cain's Quiet, because it did resonate with me as an extreme introvert in the US. I'm so glad to read your perspective on it, and how it contrasts with life in Finland. (And it kind of makes me think I'd fit in really well there). It will be interesting to see how your culture may adapt to America's influence. I'm rooting for you to figure out a way to find that golden mean.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      There was so much that resonated with me, like the family that sits together reading each their own book. I wouldn't go so far as to call Finland an introvert's paradise - no place on Earth is perfect - but ours is probaby an easier culture for an introvert to to adapt to than the American culture that Cain described in the book.
      (I wonder whether there are regional variations in the USA? It's such a huge country, after all...)