In Defense of Quietness

I have always been a quiet, shy person. Anyone who knows me would agree that I am virtually incapable of speaking loudly; I cannot count the number of times people have told me I need to speak up and project my voice, or that I need to assert myself. Whenever this happens, I always feel slightly inadequate, as if I have failed some fundamental test in human communication. Although I completely understand the necessity of making oneself heard — after all, it is unreasonable to expect that other people should constantly have to strain to hear me — loudness and gregariousness should not be the ideal. Perhaps, if we allowed one another and ourselves to be a bit quieter, we would be a bit more capable of cooperation and consideration.

Quietness is, I feel, simply another characteristic of a person, like having brown hair or a penchant for gooey brownies. Yet, people always prioritize the dominant presence in the room, a tendency which often leads to the most outgoing people holding sway over any decisions. My high school communications and English classes, for example, taught us to project confidence and to be a leading voice in a discussion.  I often find, however, that those who are not speaking up are the ones who are truly listening and reflecting on an issue, and those people might have more thorough and comprehensive views as a result. This is not to say that outgoing people do not have valuable opinions, but rather, that the conversation as a whole would benefit if those involved did not consider only the views which are expressed the most emphatically. 

Yes, it is important to be able to express one’s opinion when necessary, but it is also important to be able to listen, and I sincerely feel that our society does not teach us how to be quiet. As a result, most people are quite eager to talk and offer their viewpoints, especially about politics, but few are willing to sit in contemplative silence. Speaking loudly is useless if no one can hear your voice amidst the general cacophony. For example, I have participated in numerous English class discussions consisting of twenty or more talkers and zero listeners. We have all been in a discussion with people who say, “Going off of that …” and then proceed to take off on an entirely unrelated tangent. True, everyone can hear what everyone else is saying, but hearing is not the same thing as understanding or appreciating. 

This prioritization of self-assertion in conversation is related, although not identical to, the societal preference for extroversion. Indeed, the archetype of an “ideal” person, at least in my experience with American culture, seems to be someone sociable and open who can make friends with everyone at a glance, someone who always knows exactly what to say in every situation. That ideal denies the positive aspects of the wide range of personality that exists throughout humanity; just because someone does not reach out easily to others does not mean that person is faulty in some way. In fact, people speak with worry of toddlers who are “shy” as if shyness is an affliction they hope the child will outgrow. “My child is just shy,” they say apologetically, shaking their heads. “Come on, say hello to (my colleague / your long-lost cousin / our neighbor),” they cajole. I remember countless times in my childhood when my mother reprimanded me for hiding behind her. My poor toddler brain did not understand why she wanted me to confront all those terrifying, gigantic adults. Granted, human interaction is a necessary part of existence that greatly enhances one’s life, so one should not avoid people altogether, but it is unjust to brand shyness as the negative end of the spectrum and sociability as the positive end of the spectrum. I think people mistakenly feel that, if they are not actively chattering and exchanging ideas and jokes, they are failing at successful social interaction. On the contrary, the constant pressure to be the “life of the party” often hinders one’s ability to truly get to know people and to make close friends. There is a marked difference between having a large group with which one can “hang out” and a few kindred spirits who are always there for you when you need them, and I would much prefer the latter. After all, anyone willing to take the time to befriend a shy person will be a worthy friend indeed.   

In fact, being “shy” often gives one the chance to become familiar with oneself, so perhaps more people need to set aside time to be “shy.” Perhaps people are so eager to put themselves forward that they have no chance to step back and reflect. After all, if one is constantly wading into the throng, one has less of a chance to hear one’s own voice. It does no good to spend every hour of every day with other people if those interactions are merely artificial. Unfortunately, I believe the pressure to be extroverted often prompts us to present facades to the world, prioritizing conversation over content and small talk over substance. I have no problem with the act of conversing itself; I simply think we should converse when we truly have something to say, and that we should not hold everyone to the standard of being a skilled conversationalist.

Often, people ask themselves, “How can I make myself heard?” or “How can I be more outgoing?”  Perhaps instead, we should ask ourselves, “How can I make sure everyone has a chance to be heard if they wish it?” and “How can I appreciate and interact with other people without forgetting myself?” When we value the ability to speak over the crowd over the ability to listen to the crowd, we miss the things we might learn if we were all willing to be a bit more silent every once in a while. As for myself, I will always have people telling me to project my voice, and I will try to speak up when it matters — but I will try not to mind being quiet either.

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