I remember a time during one of my first jobs out of college when a colleague asked me this seemingly innocent question: “Why are you so quiet?” It was during a staff party after a long week of intense training. I still remember the feeling as my heart dropped and there was a tightening in my throat. I didn’t feel the need to fill the space around me with noise. I preferred to sit back and observe my environment, especially when it was filled with a bunch of chatty people.
Initially I felt a hot flash of anger. But when my thoughts quieted down, and I was honest with myself, I felt mostly sadness and shame, and I worried that maybe something wasn’t OK with me.
It’s a common misconception that all introverts are quiet. The truth is, many introverts excel at conversation in social settings, but they need time to recharge alone afterwards.
However, it’s safe to say that most introverts have heard some iteration of Why are you so quiet? at one point or another.
Sometimes the Why are you so quiet? shows up in a job performance review. Extroverted bosses wonder why we don’t speak up more, and they give feedback that they want to see us be more assertive in meetings. We are left gritting our teeth and holding back from stating the obvious: “I would share more if you all would shut up and stop talking over one another.”
Other times the Why are you so quiet? comes in the form of concern. Our silence is mistakenly seen as a sign that something is wrong. Surely we must be worried or depressed if we aren’t talking! We are then left to convince this person that we are indeed doing just fine, or we alter our behavior to seem more outwardly expressive and talkative. The latter can be tiring!
One of the more frustrating times the Why are you so quiet? surfaces is when people assume that you must be shy. Shyness and introversion are two different things. Introversion refers to how a person recharges their energy (think solitary endeavors such as reading, writing, or general reflection). People who are shy have a difficult time in new situations and often fear negative judgment from others. While it is true that some introverts are also shy, that isn’t always the case.
Many times people mistakenly think that a lack of words equates to a lack of thoughts or opinions. For us introverts, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Introverts have the ability to take in a lot of information, but we need time to turn inward and process this information. In staff meetings, introverts are often still mulling over one topic when they realize that the agenda is now on a totally different topic. Co-workers might mistake quietness for apathy or a lack of investment in the meeting when that is not the case.
So what is the best way to handle these situations? Here are some things to think about the next time you hear those five words:
- Say nothing. Be confident that you are fine the way you are. You do not owe any sort of explanation on why you prefer to speak less.
- Educate. Some people aren’t aware of the difference between introversion and extroversion. Take a moment to share a bit about how you process information and how you prefer to communicate in a group setting.
- Make a joke out of it. While I have never actually done this, I’ve often wanted to playfully reply, “Why are you so loud?”
- Ask for time to process. If you are having an important conversation, whether in your romantic relationship or at work, ask for time to process your thoughts. Let the other member(s) of the conversation know that you want to discuss it further, but you need time.
- Don’t take it personally. Most people who ask this question mean no harm and often ask it out of genuine concern. They do not realize the impact that it can have on us quiet people.
- Consider challenging yourself. There are times when I have made a conscious effort to speak up more in professional settings to benefit both the organization and myself.
Whatever you do next time you hear some form of Why are you so quiet?, know you aren’t alone if those five words make you clench your fists or let out a sigh of exasperation (quietly of course). Revel in the fact that you are giving the world a gift, the gift of silence. It takes all kinds to make this world go round, and if everyone was talking all of the time, it would be a loud, loud place.
Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing. William S. Burroughs
Image Credit: Marta Bevacqua