In Defense of the Quiet

I often inhabit the inner circles of introvert hell.  My work involves isolated groups of youngish, wierdish, over-educated people forced together, for better or for worse, until we all get laid off.

The forced camaraderie of the first days of any project is always difficult.  I find out, for the first time EVER, that I am quiet.  Very quiet.  The quietest person anybody has ever met.  The quietest person who ever existed.  Uncomfortable extroverts put words and phrases in my mouth and assign emotions to me that I may not have, and I nod and bare my teeth like a nervous ape.

Inside, I’m angry, embarrassed, and feeling inferior.  I am someone who has to be coaxed out, cracked, or broken, and the whole affair is painful for everyone involved.  I feel inadequate, like I’m missing out on life, and life is missing out on me.  On the other hand, I feel like I have a duty to entertain people as we stand around, bored and unstimulated, in our orange vests leaning on shovels.

I come to share the gospel of silence.  Close extroverted friends have complained to me of the verbal garbage they feel destined to spew for all eternity, and that duty to entertain they can’t escape.  I admit that I love them for that very reason—they make me comfortable enough to draw out my own extroverted side.  We all slide around on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, and the labels of “loud” and “quiet” are confining.  We introverts can hold lively conversations, we can be belles of the ball, but at a price.  We get drained.

First, in defense of the quiet: we’re not all snobby, we’re not all stupid, and we’re not all mass murderers or serial killers.  I can’t even kill one of those thousand-legged pre-Cambrian monsters that drop from the ceiling fan into your lap in old Midwestern houses.  We don’t generalize like that about outgoing people.  They’re judged and labeled by their verbal prowess and quick on-your-feet intelligence.  I’m shy.  People struggle to define me when we meet, and I let them talk at me and just shrug it off, trying not to get upset.  I guard my personality and stay silent until this stage passes.  Mutual comfort grows from shared experiences, like charging grizzlies and shovel probing in smelly marshes.  I am fond of this slow-growing intimacy that has little to do with talking.

Part of the problem is the need for instant gratification and understanding.  I need to show these new people NOW how smart/sexy/funny I am.  I need to push the joke farther, make you laugh harder, make you see how clever I am.  We miss out on entire facets of both extroverted and introverted personalities; and worse, we’re all performing, which is not healthy.

Sometimes, just experiencing something with another person is all you need, and no conversation is required.  Sometimes actions can speak louder than words.  Watch someone deep in thought, watch someone give dirt hell with a shovel, watch someone skip gleefully to grab their lunch from the truck, watch someone sit bored at a desk.  It can warm you up and make you grin, because you behave the same way when you’re thinking, working, eating, or bored, and so does everybody else on earth.  I live for these little shared bits of humanity.  I use them to remind myself not to be intimidated by talkers—we’re all going through the same motions.

I love the point on projects where we can all sit in the truck in silence.  It may sound boring, but that is a truckful of people who are comfortable with each other, and content to watch what is happening in that big wide world out there.  But I also love listening to a rant about Congress, or musing about future chicken ranches, or how we’ve all missed the news about Syria and Miley Cyrus since we’ve been out bush.  Variety.

You know me—fuck the Mainstream and the System and the Man, and all that shit is really, really loud, and favors really, really loud people.  And here again is the thesis that crops up in all my writing: think of what we’re missing out on.

Japanese proverb:  “The duck that squawks gets shot.”

American proverb: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

It is not like this everywhere else.  In Japanese cultures, silence increases credibility.  Silence is active, whereas to blabber is to postpone action (aaahhhmen).  I work in an office some days, and I don’t understand how people can get up every half hour and have a meaningless convo about sugar or their daughter in South Carolina and get anything done.

You can’t sink in and lose yourself in work that way.  Quiet is absolutely necessary for any and all work.  If you’re not silent, you’re not working.  You could fight me on this point with examples like teaching, talk-show hosting, and any kind of communication required in a team setting—but when it gets right down to it, creation and deep thought cannot happen if you are blabbing.  Real work gets done when you are on your own with a pen or a shovel or a keyboard—the rest is just moving the product around and getting second opinions.  I consistently work harder and smarter and more than other people, not because I’m awesome, but because I’m a shy, boring person who doesn’t take many gab breaks.

American Indian cultures view silence as the mark of an exceptional person who understands that the precariousness and volatility of life means that nothing is definite, certain, or worth voicing.  That last bit is something to think on for all of us.  We are trained to advertise ourselves, not to question our own assertions or the value of what we want to say.

Traditional Amer-Indian learning is visual and experience based; asking questions means you’re being rude and distracted.  Navajo students in English-speaking classrooms do not see themselves as shy, though they rarely offer answers in discussion; knowledge is not freely given to strangers, and small talk is not necessary.  I like this idea of having to earn knowledge instead of drowning in it.  Nothing is worse to me than someone asking a question that was just explained five seconds earlier, if only they had been listening.

In American culture, old white dudes like Emerson say things like, “Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.”  It’s true, but what’s so great about making people think things/worship things/do things?  This is, in fact, kind of scary, and makes me think of Nazis and the Klan, a couple of loudmouths and a whole swarm of mindless listeners who are convinced of their own superiority by some slick wordplay.

People say a lot of unoriginal shit.  People force me to have conversations that I don’t care about, I’m forced to spout more unoriginal shit, and ultimately, my comfort in silence is sacrificed to soothe an extrovert’s discomfort.  They can tell me to speak up and force me to talk, but telling someone to stop talking is the penultimate rudeness.  For introverts, this is draining, and extroverts, who naturally feed on social interaction, steal all our energy.  Vampires.

My favorite cliché of all:  “It’s always the quiet one.”  What?  Who’s not talking?  Bah.  I have a decent sense of humor, but when you hear this with every new group of people you meet, it’s infuriating.  (It’s not worth saying, guys.)  It’s always a joke, but it’s not even fuuuuunny.  It’s like clutching your purse and saying “It’s always the mestizo.”  I was born this way and I’m kinda proud of it, even though the mainstream considers me inferior.  There’s one thing that’s definite and worth saying: it’s always the loudest asshole who says, “It’s always the quiet one.”

To be honest, and not the least bit self-praising, I think the quiet ones are the smart ones.  We might not always have the biggest IQ or the quickest, smartest comeback, but we’ve seen more, heard more, and probably read more and spent more time musing.  Extroverts are adept at sharing and spreading knowledge, and brewing that knowledge into action.  Extroverts are movers and shakers, but they need introverts to whisper good, new ideas over their shoulders.  Geniuses are almost always introverted, because they are the ones devoting ten-thousand lonely hours to honing their talents.  Up with introverts.  Think how much electoral politics would change if we had distinct, written plans and life histories of candidates instead of voting on who lied to us the best.

I love extroverts and loud people.  They’re entertaining.  If the world was full of people like me, it’d be so boring we’d all drink Draino and quietly die.  Extroverts might be happy without introverts, but I’m willing to bet ya’ll would be living in the Neolithic today.  There would be no good books or ICBMs.

Consider the extrovert and introvert in you, and ask if both get their fair percentages of your time.  I’m often anxious to hang out with friends for fear that I’ll miss out on something, but that’s just my dumb ape brain worrying that they’ll find a pig carcass and I won’t get to eat any.  We have the luxury of taking time alone, so maybe if you’re grumpy or dreaming of heads on pikes, what you really need is to read the lone voice of an author, listen to music, meditate, exercise, whatever, just enjoying your own company.

So let’s all be good to each other, and let’s acknowledge that we live in a society of incessant, silly chatter.  And it’s dumb.  So be friendly to that quiet guy or gal at the office and listen to what they have to say.

The Quiet Pet by John William Godward
The Quiet Pet by John William Godward