Susan Cain: The quiet revolution

August 3, 2020

In a society that encourages social, outgoing traits, Susan Cain is a spokesperson for introverts. We caught up  to discuss the role of quiet in our increasingly noisy world.

You can listen to the audio interview, or read the transcript below.

Julian Treasure: I’m with somebody who’s become a friend over the last couple of years, Susan Cain. Susan and I have a huge amount of shared interests.

We communicated before you did your talk, Susan, because of your interest in quiet. Quiet is a word that means a lot to me in literal terms. For you it’s more spiritual. Since that amazing TED talk of yours, things have changed for you, and I’d love for you to say what you’re doing now about quiet?

Susan Cain: Yes, absolutely. After my TED talk I started hearing from thousands and thousands of people who had heard the talk and had changed their lives because of it. And so, although I’m really a writer by nature, I felt like I needed to start a Quiet Revolution first because every time I sit down at my laptop to start writing, what I find myself doing instead is corresponding with people who have sent me letters and thinking about how we can change the world on behalf of the 50% of humanity that’s introverted.

So I’m starting a Quiet Revolution. We are planning to transform schools, transform businesses, and create new media featuring quiet people – the quietly bold, quietly cool people. One of the projects I want to want to work on is developing movies and books featuring quiet heroes and heroines, especially for children. We have all kinds of plans up our sleeves.

JT: That’s fantastic. What’s interesting is, the quiet person also needs a quiet place. TED right now is not a quiet place, as I’m sure anybody listening to this can hear. We’re outside the main hall, it’s a coffee break, there are hundreds of people around us, and it’s very hard to hear. You’re bellowing at somebody from a foot away… Well, that’s the experience of many people in schools and offices too. My talk last year about designing for the ears was about this, and you’re taking this on too. I’m really hoping that we can collaborate. So, what are you working on at the moment with regards to spaces in offices and schools?

SC: One of the first projects that we are getting off the ground is a partnership with Steelcase. For years I have been speaking out pretty vocally against the new trend towards open-plan offices. You have no privacy, no visual privacy, no auditory privacy, and it’s very difficult to focus and be creative in that kind of environment. So, we’re doing a partnership with Steelcase to create quiet spaces that will exist within open office plans, so that even if you are working in an open office plan, you have the freedom to move back and forth between the private spaces and the more social, interactive spaces. I think we all need a balance of both, but we need to give each individual the option to choose what is the right ratio for them.

JT: I’m convinced that we need to think about this from an organisational point of view. Some organisations are louder and more bouncy than others, whilst some are very quiet and restrained. From a team point of view, because they’re forever sitting noisy teams next to quiet teams, which is crazy.

SC: Yes.

JT: And then from an individual work point of view, we need to consider the type of person and also the type of work they’re doing. I spoke, a while back, on the same stage as a guy called Professor Jeremy Myerson who’s at the Royal College of Art. He’s a designer who specialises in office spaces, apart from anything else. Jeremy distinguishes three kinds of work: collaboration (which, obviously, open-plan is good for that), concentration (where we need quiet working space to think, like a library), and contemplation (where we need to chill, recharge). Do you think that’s a decent way of dividing it up?

SC: I think it’s a wonderful way of dividing it up. And it’s funny, that actually anticipates the way we’re structuring our quiet spaces. We’ve developed some that are specifically for focus, or what your professor would call concentration, and others are developed for respite, or what you would call contemplation. I think that modern offices have the collaboration element well taken care of, but they’re neglecting the concentration and the contemplation.

JT: We’re still seeing the of Taylorism, which started in the early twentieth century, where we’ve got serried ranks of identical desks. Everything’s the same, no personality, no individuality at all, and people conflate cost saving with productivity. They think the more people you can cram in, the more productive an office is, and all the research shows that that’s not true.

I imagine for introverts it’s doubly untrue? If you’re next to somebody who can overhear every conversation you have, it’s so intimidating…

SC: Yes, you’re absolutely right. The funny thing is, in recent decades, people have justified cost saving by pretending that it’s something that aids creativity and collaboration. Of course, there’s always a grain of truth in everything, and of it’s nice to be able to interact with people. I would never suggest designing an office that isn’t set up for lots of interaction and connection between people – we all love that. But we’re leaving out a very important, quiet part.

Introverts feel the need for this much more often, but extroverts need it, too. I talk to extroverts all the time. In their case they actually have to force themselves to go into quiet spaces to get the focus that they need to do good work. For introverts, they crave it more, but we all need it if we want to do our best work.

JT: I once advised a company to have a soundproof room where people could go and scream and play heavy metal if they wanted because they were quite a stressful place, and as well as chilling, some people prefer to release their stress that way.

SC: Yes. absolutely. We all have different ways that we do it. I do believe that the trend now in office design is going towards choice. So, five or 10 years from now, what I’m saying is going to be commonplace and mainstream. We’re individuals, and we need to provide individual choice.

JT: I do hope that’s right. And then, of course, in education the same thing applies, and healthcare, too. We’re surrounded by noise all the time. Again, it must be intimidating for introverted kids in education, with group work and bad acoustics.

SC: Yes. This is actually one of our big campaigns. We really want to transform education and the way that we educate quiet children. Now, of course, there’s this great trend in education towards everything being done in groups. Noise levels and cacophony is endemic in the modern classroom, so we want to go in and change all that. So, watch out!

JT: Absolutely. So, your TED talk, which is now, what is that, 8 million views? Everybody should watch it because it’s a classic piece fighting for a minority whose voice, by definition, has not been being heard.

Where else can people go to find out about the revolution?

SC: Thank you. Right now we’re in the process of building a big new website. You can sign up there to be on our email list, and that way you’ll be in the loop all the way through.

JT: Wonderful. Well, I hope we can work together in some way on this, Susan. And we will make it change.

SC: I’d love that. Thank you so much. Julian is a kindred spirit, and I know so many of you out there are as well, so thank you for listening.

To discover more about Susan’s Quiet Revolution, visit the website or check out Susan’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

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