You can say many things about me that won’t cause offence—impatient, slapdash, scruffy, clumsy, tone-deaf, illegible handwriting, directionally challenged…all of these slights feel unimportant. They will skim the surface and barely leave a mark. But there’s one personal comment that until recently cut really deep and I would have said—please, please, p-l-e-ase don’t ever call me quiet. It’s a simple word that is inoffensive when applied to a train carriage, a dog or a summer’s day and yet for many years I had an intensely uncomfortable relationship with it stretching right back to early childhood. We lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone else and when I went out with my mother she’d do a lot of chatting. I’d stand holding her hand in the butcher’s shop, in the street and in the queue at the Home & Colonial Stores thinking that the grown-ups were unbelievably boring and wondering if they were ever going to stop nattering. I was shy and thought I was being well-behaved but far from praising my resignation, when they did take notice of me these unthinking adults would often say, “Isn’t she quiet!” followed by a tinkly don’t mind me for making personal comments kind of laugh. That’s how I remember it but while that may have been what they said, we all know there is often a chasm between what people say and how we hear or interpret it. What I heard was she’s got nothing to say for herself and so by implication believed they were saying she’s not very interesting—what a funny little thing. I grew up feeling that being quiet was something to be ashamed of.
With a dash of maturity and lots of practise, shyness gets easier to disguise but the fear of being exposed does not go away and even as an adult, if anyone calls me quiet or shy it lands with a painful thud. And so I was interested to read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She firmly challenges the misconception that introverts are always serious and aloof with nothing much to offer. Phew. I’m grateful for that and clearly many others are too, as the book has sold more than four million copies—no doubt to plenty of introverts since according to her estimate that applies to about one-third of us.
Of course I already knew—you can’t get to your sixties without learning a thing or two about yourself—that I need a lot of time alone in order to feel well-balanced and happy, and that therefore I’m towards the introverted end of the scale. If I got my energy mostly from being with other people then I’d be towards the opposite end where the extroverts do their partying. But reading the calm, non-judgemental words in the book made me recognise how I’ve spent much of my life in denial about my natural social preferences—guiltily trying to squeeze in a bit of solitude here and there and feeling that I have to justify it rather than stating that I need it. And feeling that there’s something missing in me because I prefer one-to-one conversations rather than struggling to make myself heard in a large, confident group. Cain’s argument makes perfect sense to me—we develop these insecurities because Western society has a strong bias towards extroverts—admiring and idealising people who are gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight while underestimating the strengths that are often associated with introverts such as self-motivation, listening skills, empathy, and reflectiveness.
Perhaps that balance is changing, though, and if so then we have lockdown to thank. When Susan Cain wrote her book in 2010 she could not have imagined that within a decade we would all be participating in a huge natural experiment that had us confined to our homes for months with the perfect opportunity to reflect at length on our social preferences. Like so many others, I found it was a great relief to step back from striving for the extrovert ideal, and suddenly the media spotlight swung round to illuminate the joys of being an introvert. There were countless articles that patiently explained how it’s not that introverts dislike being with other people—speaking for myself, there are lots and lots (and lots) of people whose company I LOVE—but rather that we reach the point of being socially satiated and overstimulated more quickly than extroverts and need to retreat to some solitude in order to recharge our batteries. And there were also many debates about the validity of these labels, and points made about us all being different. Not all introverts are shy, for example, and we all respond individually depending on the situation, our mood and the people we’re with. This attention is good as whether we are introverts, extroverts or classification sceptics, we have to deal with people of all types and the more we understand about one another the better.
My impression is that the post-pandemic world has embraced some fundamental and positive social changes. Covid brought us into daily contact with mortality and this has certainly made me less inclined to squander my time on things I don’t want to do. I believe that many people feel similarly and are able to be more honest with themselves. Then too, there is the newly fashionable status of introversion and I have a hunch that this has made people more willing to admit their vulnerabilities and connect better. I was at a talk recently and got chatting in the break to a nice man who paused a few minutes into the conversation and said, “I’m shy’. He looked perfectly normal, even confident, and the admission didn’t seem at all inappropriate whereas once it might have seemed weird. “I’m shy too,” I said and immediately felt released from the fear of social judgement. We had a lovely conversation. It was much more satisfying than small talk of the weather and where do you live variety that leaves little impression on either participant and means you have to start all over again next time you meet.
Something similar happened this week adding further evidence to my hunch. I received an email from a writing society that I’ve been on the point of joining for some time but have hesitated to pursue as they are a large group and hold their meetings in a lecture theatre. I’ve been put off by other experiences of sitting alone in the midst of an established group, making dreaded small talk and then going home feeling considerably more miserable than when I started. It’s back to that thing about being better in one-to-one situations or small groups. Anyway, the email said that the group was holding a coffee morning and the convener thoughtfully included the words Some people (like me) may be shy, so please try to include everyone. That was all the encouragement I needed so I went along. And I wasn’t disappointed—it was thoroughly enjoyable. I talked to some people as I was queuing for coffee and then sat down next to a friendly-looking woman. “This is my first time here and I’m a bit shy,” I volunteered. “Me too” she said enthusiastically. And we both smiled.
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