For introverts, silence can be so much more than the absence of words — it can be an opportunity to pause, think, and reflect.
Ever since I was a kid, my family has never understood why I’m so quiet. “You’ve been awfully quiet; do we bore you?” my uncles would ask when I’d sit down with them and just listen. No, I’m not bored, I just don’t have anything to say.
“Are you mad?” my cousins would ask when I didn’t participate as actively as they did in a conversation. No, I’m not mad, that’s just my face.
“What’s wrong? You haven’t said anything in a while,” my mom would say when I was in the car with her and I’d spend the whole ride looking out the window. Nothing’s wrong, I’m just thinking.
Why do people always assume that loudness is equal to happiness and silence means something’s wrong? Sometimes I just want to listen. And sometimes I don’t have anything interesting or worthwhile to add to the conversation, so I choose not to talk instead of wasting my energy with empty chitchat. But, unfortunately, my silence somehow always puts me in the spotlight, the absolute last place I want to be in.
People Find Silence Unsettling
If I had a nickel for every time someone in my family felt the unnecessary urge to point out my quietness, I would probably be able to afford a house by now. In Beverly Hills. But I know that their reaction is fairly normal. People find silence unsettling, especially people in Western cultures. And I understand why. Silence can be a source of anxiety, awkwardness, and uncertainty. It can lead to uncomfortable moments and moments of self-doubt and self-reflection that we’re not entirely comfortable with because they can shine a light on our fears and insecurities.
But still, sometimes it amazes me that my family has known me literally my entire life and my quietness still manages to surprise them. They don’t understand why I’m so comfortable with silence. To them, silence is a problem that they have to get rid of. It’s like an itch that they desperately need to scratch. But silence doesn’t always have to be a problem — on the contrary, it can be an opportunity to pause, listen, and reflect. We introverts tend to think a lot before we speak, so silence gives us an opportunity to gather our thoughts and organize them before we decide what we want (or don’t want) to share in a conversation.
We are so used to the constant noise that some people seem to forget that not talking is an option we all have when we are in the presence of other people. Not everyone needs to constantly fill the room with words to eliminate the dreaded silence. Personally, I don’t like talking just for the sake of talking. I don’t like to spend the little social energy that I have just to fill the silence with empty words. When I speak, it’s because I want to add something worthwhile to the conversation. I don’t like opening my mouth to say unnecessary things that not even I want to hear. That’s one of the reasons why I hate small talk. Speaking of which…
Small Talk? No Thanks.
In a nutshell, small talk can be defined as polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters. To some, small talk is a way to start a conversation and begin to get to know somebody. But to introverts, it can be unbearable and excruciating, precisely because introverts love to talk about deeper — and sometimes controversial — issues, like dreams, fears, the future, big ideas, relationships, and even politics.
And I’m sure sometimes people think I’m rude because I can’t participate in a conversation based entirely on small talk as easily as they can. But I’m not trying to be rude; it just doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say when an Uber driver tells me that the weather is nice or when a coworker says that last night’s football game was a nail-biter. Unfortunately, small talk is the cornerstone of socialization — and I’m terrible at it. But I don’t really mind because that’s not the kind of socialization that I want to have.
Some people believe that introverts hate socializing and talking to people, but actually, there are really few things in life that we love more than a good conversation. A conversation that allows us to connect deeply with someone and make time fly by. Those kinds of conversations recharge us and make us feel alive. But small talk is not that kind of conversation. Small talk allows people to have an entire conversation without actually talking about anything meaningful or connecting on a deep level. You cannot really get to know somebody when you are talking about the weather or asking questions like “How are you?” The responses usually only lead to polite answers like “I’m fine, and you?”
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But, Sometimes, Small Talk Is Necessary
Of course, sometimes small talk is necessary — there’s a reason why it is the most popular way to break the ice and start a conversation. Not everyone likes talking about their dreams and fears from the get-go. Unfortunately, there are some more gifted than others at the art of talking about nothing. Personally, I’m awful at it. But there’s nothing wrong with being the quiet listener from time to time. And there’s nothing wrong with refusing to participate in the conversation if we don’t feel like it, as long as we’re not purposefully rude to anyone.
After all, we introverts have a limited amount of social energy, and it’s okay if we don’t like to spend it with mindless banter whose sole purpose is to eliminate the silence in the room. Especially because we know that silence can be so much more than the absence of words. Among other things, it can be an opportunity for us to pause, think, and reflect about ourselves and the world around us.
The Unspoken Pressure to Speak
I used to have a classmate in college who could not bear silence. He used to be my lab partner in a microbiology lab class, which meant we spent a lot of time together doing experiments. We were usually by ourselves in the lab because our schedules only allowed us to do the experiments at night. We had a friendly relationship, but we weren’t exactly friends — we didn’t have a lot of things in common, so we usually ran out of conversation topics fairly quickly.
I didn’t mind this. I liked working in silence, especially because lab work requires a certain level of precision and concentration that can only be achieved through being quiet. But my classmate hated the quiet; it made him uncomfortable. Even though we didn’t have anything to talk about, he felt this unspoken pressure to fill the room with words.
I’m sure everyone has felt this pressure at least once in their lives. It’s this pressure imposed by society to avoid the feared “uncomfortable silence.” We force ourselves to talk even if we don’t have anything to say. But why do we do this? There are a number of different reasons. Some people might do it because silence gives them anxiety. Others might do it to avoid the awkwardness of being in a quiet room with another person. Still others might do it to avoid the moments of self-reflection that come with silence. And yet others might do it because they’re afraid that the other person will think that they are boring.
I don’t know why my classmate used to do everything possible to eliminate the silence when he was with me in the lab, but it was one of the first times I noticed how exhausting it was to talk just for the sake of talking. I had discovered that I was an introvert a few months earlier, so I was very aware of the fluctuations in my social battery when I was with other people — and nothing drained more of my energy than talking just for the sake of talking. So I stopped doing it. I confronted that unspoken pressure to avoid uncomfortable silences I’m sure we all have.
I’m sure this has led some people to believe that I’m rude or boring, but so be it. I prefer to save the little social energy that I have for when I actually have something to say rather than talk just for the sake of talking.