Try and imagine a conversation where someone who is exceptionally loud is told, “you’re a bit loud aren’t you” or are told “you talk too much” within the first few minutes of meeting them. It’s almost unimaginable isn’t it? It’s almost too rude to contemplate such a thing happening in any social situation.
Yet, if you are quiet natured this has probably happened to you at some point in your life and probably more than once. It was perhaps more common when you were in your teens, but it still happens, although probably less frequently in adult life. People usually have a bit more control over the first thoughts that come into their mind when they get into their mid 20s.
I have been called many things in my life. Shy. Quiet. Introverted. These have often been inserted into phrases such as, “you’re a bit quiet aren’t you” or “you don’t say much, do you” or “why are you so shy?” Sometimes these are just general statements but they can often be delivered with a clear and perceptible undertone of negativity or even pity from the speaker.
Of course in the 21st century, to be labelled as quiet is one of the most least masculine traits that a man can possess. In the lexicon of unmasculine phrases it probably ranks above “light weight”, “vegetarian” or “emotion”, although not by much.
Even when I was growing up I wondered why I was so quiet. I absolutely abhorred presentations in front of class at school and even university. I was happiest in my own thoughts, liked small gatherings, had a close circle of friends and didn’t like social situations where there were large numbers of people. (i.e., a party, as I believe they are called). I didn’t enjoy team sports, not only because of my introverted nature but also because some of my schoolmates acted like they were in the final of the World Cup. I also preferred it “on the benches” talking about computer games with a school friend of mine.
Even in social situations I prefer to hover about on the periphery of the proceedings rather than being in the centre of the action, sort of like an male wallflower version of Batman. A silent guardian, a watchful protector. The hero the party deserves, but not the one it needs right now.
At family gatherings, the kitchen served as a particular refuge for me. It also had the added bonus that you could also overhear my aunties bitching about other family members in there. It was sort of like the “green room” at a theatre, but at my grandparents house, with a selection of finger food and bowls of crisps.
For years I had felt that there was something wrong with me. Why was I like this when the majority of other men weren’t, or at least didn’t appear to be acting like they were?
It wasn’t until I read the fantastic book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain that it really all feel into place. These were the traits of an introverted person. They were normal and I should be comfortable with them. I had a unique set of skills that were useful and needed. There wasn’t anything wrong with me at all. I may not be able to approach strangers comfortably, deliver a presentation or think on the fly when asked a question, but I made up for it in other ways. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was what I was and it was a revelation finding that out.
I was more expressive with the written word (I think). It was part of the reason that I set up this blog and started writing posts for it. I had a more empathetic mind and can relate to people’s emotions a bit more. So much so, that I’ve even felt “secondary embarrassment” on behalf of total strangers before. I can focus on tasks for a long time when necessary. I prefer deeper conversations and meaningful topics (at least to me) rather than more superficial conversations. After I’ve used that staple of the British conversation handbook: the weather, I tend to make my excuses and leave as swiftly as possible. I can sometimes pad things out by mentioning the cuts to the local authority budget and empty shop fronts, but this will usually only buy me a few more minutes.
However, this doesn’t matter as nowadays men have to exude a constant and sometimes almost over-bearing confidence. Look at the way the media portray the ideal man. Full of swagger, sure of himself, confident in all situations. He’ll get that job and that woman. He’ll ace that presentation in-front of the clients from Zurich, dine with his future in-laws and then meet with a gathering of his clones, with matching £150 haircuts for a few drinks, all while looking good, acting confident and making sure nothing gets in his way. All this while looking like he just stepped straight out of a Hugo Boss catalogue.
It’s an issue that woman have been tolerating for decades and with undoubtedly far more severity than men ever will, but the rougher sex appear to be catching up.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking seeps out into the rest of society. To be quiet now is almost to be ostracised from society. If you aren’t loud people don’t tend to notice you’re even there anymore. I have slipped out of meetings without any of the attendees even noticing I was gone. Most workplaces and seminars are geared for more extroverted people. They rely on clear and confident public speaking to get your opinion across, although on occasion there may be some fluorescent post-it-notes available for you to scribble some thoughts onto.
But society doesn’t particularly value more introverted traits. When was the last time you wrote “quiet introspection” or “empathetic ability” onto a job application. Unless you’re applying to be the ship’s counsellor on the Starship Enterprise, about to embark on her latest five year mission, I expect that application wouldn’t get you to interview. Even if your employment required you to sit in a hermetically sealed room for seven hours with no human contact, you would still be required to say that you “prefer working in a collegiate atmosphere” and that “public speaking is a key skill that you have developed”.
When did you ever see someone adding “self reflection building” or “quietness classes” to a corporate team building agenda? These may be labelled as “mindfulness” nowadays but you see my point. However, there are a multitude of “confidence building” courses available, one of which also instructs you on how to build your “personal brand” (I threw up a bit while writing that, excuse me) as well as confidence.
Another reflection of how introversion is viewed it to look at the synonyms for the word “introverted”. These include reclusive, cool (I expect as in the temperature, not as in “daddy-cool”), withdrawn and offish. Some terms such as shy, collected, bashful and modest are a bit more neutral and could be viewed as positive traits. Trying the same exercise with “extroverted” gets you a plethora of positive associations: congenial, gregarious, personable, sociable, cordial and friendly.
But what is wrong with having a quite confidence nowadays? Since when did confidence become equated with being loud or outspoken? It’s perfectly reasonable to be quiet and confident in your own mind and abilities. You can still be gregarious with a small circle of close associates.
Basically, you are what you are. To an extent everyone modifies their behaviour to fit the social environment. I’m sure even the most gregarious extrovert would tone it down for a funeral. Like wise, I’m sure introverts can manage feats of extroversion on occasion. I even managed to take part in canvassing outside a major supermarket chain once. We need extroverts as well. They are the party masters, the organisers, the ying to the introvert yang.
But I don’t believe that you should try and change your personality to fit in with some vague feeling that you aren’t talkative enough or feel bad because you can’t deliver a presentation to a room full of people. To finish, I would like to quote the great 21st century philosopher, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta: “I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey! I’m on the right track baby I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey!”.