He said it with such pride in his voice, as if quietness was a disease that needed a cure.
As I was entering new books into the library system, my co-worker made a remark that really stung.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Oh, I talk, just not to you,” was a response I gave him in my mind.
What I actually said was slightly less bitchy. Or so I thought.
“What do you wanna talk about?”
He didn’t have a response for that, and I was not fussed about holding a conversation mid-task, so we each got on with our thing. As I’m writing this, I feel compelled to justify my action of turning him down. You see, I say I don’t care what others think but deep down I think we all want to feel understood and connected.
We all make assumptions about each other without truly considering the repercussions of those remarks. We say those things without really thinking them through. We blurt them out without considering why something is the way it is; or in this instance, why someone is the way they are. Maybe the quietness is concentration. Maybe it is contemplation. Maybe it just is.
I didn’t mind the silence but his remark left a bitter aftertaste. As have countless other similar remarks over the years. Every single one of them leads me to doubt my ability to converse with people. I start questioning my worth and what I have to offer. I start feeling guilty for not speaking which leads to increased heart rate and sweaty palms. I feel shame around the perception of what people might have of me.
Remarks like that make me lose my authentic self.
All the years of battling with the scars of childhood bullying and social anxiety resurface with each one of these tiny innocent remarks. My mind instantly goes where it always does — remembering every awkward social situation and dissecting it down to its tiniest details.
“Does everyone think I’m quiet? Do they all think I’m rude? Am I being rude? Does my quietness make me disinterested? I must come up with something to say. I must learn to fill the awkward silences. I must take more interest in people’s lives. I must be more outgoing. Here goes…I’m gonna say something.”
I was always the quiet kid, the shy one, the one that barely ever spoke up in class. Over the years, I’ve learnt to embrace my introversion but I’ve also learnt to courageously speak out when a situation calls for it. My voice still trembles at times but every time I choose to use it, I feel proud. Speaking out and speaking up makes me feel grounded in my True Self — quiet but approachable, quiet but open-minded, quiet and curious, quiet but not disinterested.
My quietness is not a weakness.
Nor is it a label I accept willingly.
With age, I’ve come to protest and detest my stereotypical quietness. I find myself speaking out more often. I sometimes wonder whether it is because I feel forced to or because I truly have something to say. Maybe it is a bit of both. All I know is that I am no longer afraid of my own voice. And I’m learning to use it on my own terms.
I appreciate the “awkward” silences in conversations and do not feel forced to fill them with meaningless chatter. I embrace the pauses to formulate my ideas and focus on what I really want to say. I’ve learnt to tune out the obnoxious attention-seekers and feel grounded in who I am and not succumb to the external perception of who they think I am, or who they want me to be.
Talking is not just a way to fill the silence but it is an exchange of energy. That should not be taken lightly. Not all energies match. And if our energies do not match, there is nothing wrong with remaining quiet. Doesn’t make us impolite or rude. It makes us just as much human as each other.
As Susan Cain put it, in a world that can’t stop talking, we need introverts and quiet people. We need them to remind us that words matter, that they bare weight. We need them to show the true meaning of quietness. We need them to teach us to embrace our own quietness and how to sit with our own thoughts without the need to constantly validate our own existence through the noise. We need confidently quiet people to help us all ground ourselves in who we are not who we think we should be.
Let the world keep talking. That doesn’t mean we all have to follow suit. It most definitely doesn’t mean that we have to be saved by loud people.
“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”