Inward Rivers

February 25, 2012 at 4:53 pm

“Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak.” -James 1:19

The following is something I actually started writing seven years ago. While it’s not at all birth-related, it’s a subject near and dear to my heart, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. I do have several birthy-type blogposts (good stuff!) lined-up to write, but writing time is rare for me these days. Alas. Anyway, I thought I’d share this condensed and tweaked version of that long-ago-started essay in case there were some folks like me out there who needed it.

“How come you’re so quiet?”

“Don’t be shy!”

“You should talk more!”

These words were spoken to me quite often when I was growing up. And I can’t tell you how irritating it was. I hated those words. I still hate them. I think it’s probably safe to say that there’s nothing more annoying to an introvert than to have an extrovert loudly make a point of how “quiet” she is.

Many view shyness as a negative trait, something to be “fixed.” So, when a child appears hesitant to interact with others, parents often feel that they must give an explanation or even an apology. This preeminence of the extroverts has been a part of western culture for quite some time. Quieter people stand out largely because they are like square pegs in a society that clearly favors round ones. Why is that so? What’s so bad about being reserved? I believe we ought to ask ourselves in this loud and often insensitive western culture—is it really in our best interest to try to turn all the quiet folks into talkers?

I've got one of each (so far)

In an article entitled “Do Shy Kids Have a Chance of Getting into College?” Thomas Hanley argues that college campuses need the timid just as much as the gregarious, as does our society in general. We all have our unique contributions to make. He lists great men and women from history—Thomas Edison, Clara Barton, Eleanor Roosevelt, J.D. Salinger—who were at one time shy or introverted. One wonders if the very fact that they were reserved somehow shaped their ability to succeed in their particular paths. Are there advantages to being an introvert?

Researcher and psychologist, Mary Rothbart, believes that inhibition plays a valuable role. “I’m really a shyness booster,” she says, “and you may want to even strengthen shyness and inhibition in some people in the sense that [these traits] control aggression” (Source). It’s about balance—within each individual and within society. Neither being reserved nor being outgoing is superior. But when society unfairly rewards the vocal, the value of introspective listeners is underplayed. When everyone is talking, who is listening? How would society itself function without a diverse mix of personality and communication types?

When it comes to classrooms, teachers are often adamant that participation is essential—and, for most teachers, only spoken participation qualifies. Why is it that such emphasis is placed upon vocalizing thoughts and ideas? When one of my husband’s graduate school professors basically told him he was going to be an incompetent school psychologist because he wasn’t outspoken enough in class, I got fuming mad. I must confess I still hold a grudge against that man to this day. My husband had these thoughts in regard to teachers interacting with quiet students:

Balance is the key here. A friend of ours, for example, feels that he would have benefited from being pressured into participating more in school. I’m sure that there are many kids in his situation. I was also very “shy” growing up, and I feel that such pressure would have very negatively impacted me. Even in college, with the professor Lani referenced… his hurtful comment was made in an email reminding me that a certain percent of my grade is based on participation, but it only made me want to participate less. I guess my point is that teachers/adults need to understand and get to know what is underlying a child’s shyness and respond accordingly. That response may range anywhere from direct pressure to positive and loving encouragement and reinforcement. I know I would have benefited more from the latter.

Like my husband, I have had a few of those insensitive/abrasive teachers over the years. And I’ve also had the great privilege of being taught by men and women who recognized the important work happening inside of my head as I sat silently in their classrooms. They respected and gently encouraged me, and I will be forever grateful to them for it.

I am also deeply grateful to friends and acquaintances who haven’t let my sometimes-quiet exterior fool them. I have known many others, like me, who initially appeared shy but when given a comfortable opportunity actually had loads to say. Some of the people I love most in this world, wonderful and intelligent and creative people, are among them. Never assume there’s nothing going on inside a person’s head, even (especially?) if he/she is being silent. If you find yourself labeling someone as “quiet,” you might ask yourself: Have you, in fact, been monopolizing the conversation with only things that are interesting to you? Have you asked that person any questions? Do you know what he’s passionate about? Do you know what her unique talents and abilities are? Have you ever shown a real interest in what makes that person tick?

However, even if that quieter child or adult you know (or are yourself) really doesn’t have a lot happening in his/her head or things to say, that’s perfect too. I have long loved these words from one of my favorite writers/speakers, Truman Madsen:

My notion is that the deeper thirst is not communication. It is communion. An infinity of things may remain unsaid or on the other hand said. But what is wanted—indeed needed—or else love suffocates, is the swifter and often non-verbal relationship: being in soul touch, when you are at the same depths or heights, or just in ordinary old-shoes comfort. You are aware of each other at the core. Talk alone can conceal as well as reveal. Much of the banter and pleasantry of our conversation does. But not if we are in the same inward rivers together. (“The Language of Love at Home,” Four Essays on Love)

We hear the phrase “awkward silence” so often. But silence doesn’t have to be awkward. It happens so often that a person asks a question in a classroom or a conversation and barely skips a beat before assuming the person(s) asked have no response for them. Give space for thought. Give space for pondering. Give space for silence. I think we all (Americans, in particular) need to get more comfortable with silence. Just because you’re sharing the same space with another person doesn’t mean you have to be constantly talking. It’s OK to just be sometimes.

Many people equate quietness with lack of self-esteem. In fact, not all loud people are secure with themselves, and not all shy people lack self-esteem. But some of them do. I’d like to ask: which came first? The lack of self-esteem or the personality? And what role might our culture’s favoritism have played in reinforcing it? Should any person have phrases like “How come you’re so…?” “Don’t be…!” flung at her? How often does a child (or adult) have to be told that his way of being is something to “fix” before coming to believe he’s really broken?

Let’s stop favoring round pegs, why don’t we? That would be great.