Today I’d like to tell you a story of four people, two girls and two women. Like all stories, this one speaks of more than the characters or events around them. But, it speaks quietly, and you’ll only hear it if you listen.
The first girl grew up in an era of Saturday morning cartoons, of city-sponsored sports leagues, and of herds of children roaming the suburban plains. She was tall and usually thin for her age. She wore coke bottle glasses and usually seemed to be looking somewhere else – somewhere that didn’t exist. She was the girl who was always picked last in PE, for any sport, even though she wasn’t nearly the worst at some, and was even pretty good at things like floor hockey. She enjoyed sleepovers with one or two friends, but at a slumber party, she would crawl deep into her sleeping bag with her pillow over her head, wishing for a light to read by, and praying that the ghost stories would stop. Whenever the teacher assigned a group project, she would sit quietly, barely participating, even though her report card held more A’s than anyone else’s. She didn’t hear her classmates make the wrong choices or assumptions. She didn’t hear whether they had good ideas. She couldn’t hear anything over the roaring in her own ears.
By all accounts, the red-haired woman was fearless. Tall and athletic, she could handle just about any horse, and would go toe-to-toe with the most cantankerous rancher. “She’s pretty tough.” “You wouldn’t want to get in her way,” people said. She organized educational seminars for horse owners, spoke to groups, and quickly became the public face for her clinic.
The second woman slunk into parties behind her husband, even though, in heels, she was several inches taller than he. Often low cut, always form-fitting, never frumpy, her clothes didn’t match her demeanor. You’d find her standing in a corner, clutching a drink, eyes watching the room, like a gazelle at a watering hole, waiting for someone to notice her. Eventually she would peel away from the wall, smile, and find a group of one or two sympathetic souls where she would stand at the edge, waiting for someone to let her in. She would talk and laugh with the others, maybe even share a story or two, but only in response to a direct question. She never asked questions of anyone else. She knew it made her look cold, like she didn’t care, but she didn’t want to pry, to ask something that might make it look like she wanted them to reveal too much. She figured that if someone wanted her to know something, they would tell her. After a couple of hours, she would grow quiet again, excuse herself to the bathroom, mention to her husband that it was getting late and maybe they should be leaving soon, or that she was so sorry but she was starting to get a headache.
The second girl is, like the first, tall and wiry, though more developed at the same age. She has a solemn face that can light into a dimpled grin. She was early to talk, and can wax eloquent on subjects that interest her, though the one word used by every teacher at the school is “quiet.” Sometimes they add “responsible” and “kind” and “maybe a little shy.” “She’s not like her brother, is she?” they ask. No, she isn’t. Her brother bounds through life, never meeting a stranger. Social isolation, even to do homework alone in his room, is physically painful for him. The girl, on the other hand, keeps her bedroom like a cave, door closed and curtains drawn. She gets good grades, and will sometimes surprise her teachers and peers with her passion on certain subjects, but most of the time, she complains that the teacher never notices her, and that the other girls never include her. She doesn’t try to join the groups or find areas of common interest. She waits, at the edges of a group, waiting to be invited. Outsiders are surprised when they see how fearless she is, climbing to the highest branches of a tree, or when they see her burly, outgoing brother defer to her instantly, or when, in a low voice, she rebukes or corrects a classmate and the other child listens. Parents and teachers comment in amazed voices at her performance after she holds the stage in a class play. They don’t see her as a performer, or as a leader. Because she stays at the edges, they assume she is passive, a follower. They don’t see the steel.
Maybe you’ve guessed it by now. The first girl and the two women are me. The second girl is my oldest daughter. We are introverts. Yes, even the red-headed veterinarian. There are more of us out there. In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes that one third to one half of the population are introverts. Yet, we live in a world that treats the introvert as an exception, an anomaly, or – most damaging – and oddball.
Cain does a far better job than I ever could of explaining the world of the introvert. Her book is impeccably researched, readable, and filled with insights that brought me to tears more than once. In fact, I probably could have met the needs of this blog post by simply typing – “Read this book.” Unfortunately, though, the people most likely to read Quiet are the introverts. And while it is a tremendous gift to read a book that helps you to understand that the things that you have always thought made you “not okay” are actually normal, introverts largely know who we are. Introspection is in our nature, wired so deeply into us that an introvert will often look confused when someone remarks on their level of self-awareness. Like most people, introverts tend to assume that there is nothing particularly different about our way of thinking.
This is where everyone needs to read Quiet. While we may understand, intellectually, that everyone’s brain works differently, and that our experience may not be that of someone else, we live in a world that wants to whittle every peg until it fits in the same sized hole.
You would think that for an introvert, raising an introverted child would be the easiest thing in the world. You’d be wrong.
The girl with the glasses got contact lenses, grew up, found people to whom she could relate, and learned to put on the superhero costume of an outgoing expert in professional settings. But, as a mother, she still sees the girl standing at the edges of the playground as a failure. She wishes that the awkward adolescent with the pale blonde hair had figured out earlier that she was just as entitled to be a part of the group as anyone else. She wishes that she had learned to fake enthusiasm, to master the code of “small talk”. She feels that she would have escaped a lot of pain if she’d learned these things when she was younger. She believes the message of her childhood and of the adult world, that to be quiet is to be passive, to prefer solitude is to be anti-social, to have a low tolerance for noise and crowds is to be shy. She believes, in short, that there is something “wrong” with her.
She sees her daughter – bright, eloquent, confident, and fearless at home or with one or two friends – hover at the edges of her peer group, wandering off with a book while the rest of the class chats or plays basketball. She sees this, and the little girl inside the woman cringes. ‘Look what you’ve done,’ the voice in her head chides. ‘She’s turning out just like you. You have to help her come out of her shell. You have to help her be more a part of the group. If she’d just join in more, they’d see how amazing she is.’ And so, in the name of tough love, I have pushed my daughter to join clubs or teams. Pushed her -- with the tight, angry voice that should tell me that this is about my fears and not about her at all – to sit with and practice with, and be a part of her basketball team rather than taking a few moments before the game to sit alone with her book. I have brought home pamphlets for theater groups, pushed her into activities because, “You know you’ll enjoy it once you get there, and you can’t stay home all the time.” Pushed her because I know that the real world eats introverts for lunch.
Fortunately, my daughter is far more stubborn and much less docile than I was as a child. While I was a shy introvert, living in fear of making waves or disappointing anyone, or – heaven forbid! – being “bad,” she knows exactly who she is, and has no problem being that person. What she does have a problem with, is people expecting her to be someone other than who she is. She honestly does not understand why girls who chatter about makeup and clothes, who bounce and flirt, are considered “bright” or “leaders.” She doesn’t see why the outgoing should get the prime roles in class plays even though they sometime have trouble memorizing their lines. She doesn’t understand why they are picked as group leaders, or why when group assignments are made, she is always placed with the kids who have trouble focusing or who don’t care about the assignment. In her head, thought is as important as action or words, and she doesn’t see why people should be expected to cluster in pods or all do the same thing.
She is right. And she’s wrong – I may need to buy her a book on understanding extroverts. At almost 13, she doesn’t understand that people can’t know your gifts if you never show them. She doesn’t see that it is impossible for her teachers or peers to know the depth of her knowledge or enthusiasm if she never lets any of it out.
But, she has grasped something that it takes many introverts decades to realize. She understands that she functions best alone or with one or two other people. She knows that when large groups begin talking, particularly all at once, her brain shuts down – overwhelmed by the stimulation. She already can verbalize the experience, common to introverts and unknown to most extroverts, of being drained by large groups, of feeling as though your energy is being sucked into the room and converted into all of that bubbling enthusiasm. She knows that she needs to be alone sometimes, that her only way to be herself is to wander away with a book. And she’s sick and tired of living in a world where the message is clear: ‘there’s something wrong with that.’
She loses by not making some adaptations to the social order of her class, yes. But the world also loses by not accepting the gifts of introverts when offered.
I have a bumper sticker, given by a friend who knows me well. It says:
*insufficient energy for small talk
Most introverts have had the following experience. (I used to think it was just me.) We find ourselves in a conversation with someone who seems sympathetic. We relax just enough. The other person asks us a question that happens to be about something interesting to us. We answer. In depth. In detail. In lots of detail. This is a thing to which we have devoted hours of thought and or research. The other person looks interested, for a minute or two, but then we notice something. We notice the eyes glazing over, the scanning of the room. We see it coming. Sure enough, the other person excuses him or herself and wanders away.
Both parties have lost. The introvert has just received yet another message that his or her way of being is not okay. And the extrovert has missed out on the insights and the opportunity for a deeper conversation. Yet, this happens all the time: at schools, in the workplace, at parties. We are living in a ten-second soundbite world that is not overly sympathetic to the documentary. And we all lose.
Okay, I’ve taken up a lot of your time with this post, and the introvert in me is squirming at my self-indulgence, but if you are still here, this video is from a TED talk given by Susan Cain. Listen. There are introverts among you.