We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.-Elizabeth Bennett
Mr Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is arguably the most famous introvert in all of English literature. This line, spoken teasingly to him by Elizabeth Bennett, makes me laugh every time I read it because, as an introvert, it’s so recognizable.
It’s true, isn’t it? Many an introvert will own that he or she dislikes small talk and prefers not to say anything unless it’s something meaningful. And yet, I’m sure many an introvert will recognize the following scenario all too well:
You’re at a dinner at someone else’s house, with a large group of family and friends, and you are, true to your ways, eating and listening to the conversation with some enjoyment — and some anxiety as well. You’ve missed a chance or two to add an amusing anecdote to the conversation because you couldn’t find an opening. Now the topic has changed to one you neither know anything about or care about very much. Then someone at the table who thinks they’re doing you a favor looks over, and saying your name, asks, “What do you think?”
You open your mouth. Everyone at the table has put down their forks and is looking right at you. A hush has fallen. And so the whole table is waiting with bated breath to hear you say, “I don’t know, I’ve never cooked a rutabaga in my life.”
Or whatever the subject happens to be.
Then follow 10 painful seconds of silence in which nobody seems to know what to say. You are now thinking, “Somebody say something, please, please, please, just let somebody say anything and rescue me from this nightmare.” Eventually, they all decide you’re not going to add anything and dinner goes on.
WHY, you might be thinking, when Joe Brother-in-Law was entertaining everybody with rutabaga stories, was everybody cutting up their food, not looking at him, going about the meal casually, but as soon as you were called on to speak, did they all stop and stare at you, putting you on the spot, making you nervous, making you say something inconsequential and ridiculous to the whole room — a thing you dislike doing with every fiber of your being? Because you’d thank them to extend the same courtesy they extended your brother-in-law.
So, why do they do that? Turns out, there’s power when the quiet speak. And I found this out in the most unexpected way.
‘What’s She Going to Say?’
A few years ago, my husband took me to see a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. There was one scene early on in the play when half a dozen or so characters were on the stage, including all three sisters from the play’s title. One of the three, Masha, was reclining on a sofa, reading a book.
And there she was, just reading, for at least ten minutes. All of the other characters were talking away (let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a play if they weren’t), but Masha wasn’t saying a word. At one point, one of her sisters said something about her, and even went up to her and threw an arm around her briefly, but still she said nothing.
I found myself looking at her frequently, thinking, “Um, this is a play. What is this person doing on stage if she’s not going to say anything?”
When Masha finally opened her mouth and delivered her first line, she spoke slowly and with purpose. You could have heard a pin drop in that theatre. Nobody moved, coughed, sneezed, or rumpled their program. I know I was holding my breath with anticipation. “What’s she going to say?” I was thinking with all my might.
The shoe was on the other foot now. And suddenly, I understood what happens when the quiet begin the speak.
How to Harness the Power of Quiet
All my life, this thing has been my social Achilles heel: the group situation. Even public speaking was not as bad as raising my hand to say something in class or participating in meetings or adding to the conversation at someone else’s dinner party. Even after I realized I am an introvert, it was a while before I understood that trouble speaking in groups is common for people like me. It’s been a journey, and along the way, I have learned the following:
I may want to be invisible at a dinner party but the fact is, I am not.
If you’re anything like me, and you get a lot of social anxiety, you’d think this knowledge would lead to avoidance behaviors, but I’ve found the opposite. Sometimes, I have to attend dinner parties. I can walk in there thinking, “There are twenty things I’d rather be doing; I’m uncomfortable; maybe nobody will even notice me,” or I can think, “Okay, I’m here. The one and only me has entered the building. I’m not going to dominate the conversation, but I’m still bringing something that wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Trust me, the second way of thinking is the better choice — it will help ease your anxiety.
When I do talk, people really are going to listen.
As much as introverts don’t like to be put on the spot, we also don’t like being overlooked. If you’re quiet, when you do open your mouth, you have the opportunity to make a big impact, which is something you probably want to do in your own way. Not every situation will result in a rutabaga comment.
Not everything I say has to be pure comedy or fabulously witty or full of wisdom.
Elizabeth Bennett’s comment is exaggerated to make a satirical point. I don’t think we introverts think so highly of ourselves as to really believe that everything we say will be worthy of being handed down to posterity. So why don’t I give myself permission to look foolish once in a while? Ridiculous things happen to everybody, and people in general probably won’t remember those things as long or as vividly as I will. So why sweat it?
My awkwardness is never as bad as I think.
The odd rutabaga comment will not damage your reputation for the people who are in your life long-term, for those who are going to stick around long enough to get the big picture of who you are. Wiser people will figure out that you’re easier to get to know in one-on-one situations and will pursue that avenue.
I also find that not all extroverts try to make us talk to be critical of our quietness — some of them simply value diversity of thought and opinion. They just want to hear from you because they believe everyone has something to contribute.
And, like I said, the ones that are really worth your time will try different strategies to hear what you have to say, once they figure out that putting you on the spot isn’t working.
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Most importantly, l’ve learned to laugh at myself.
Today’s painful embarrassment can be tomorrow’s funny little story you air out to entertain friends. I know that’s true of this entire article for me.
And remember, if you’re quiet, you’re already doing everything you need to do to make what you say meaningful and powerful: just by not saying much, you’re already there. Even if you get trapped into having to say something meaningless or absurd — you make what you believe to be a bad first impression — these things can be overcome. Personally, I enjoy overthrowing people’s preconceived notions about me. Mr Darcy was initially thought snobby, insensitive, and altogether disagreeable, but in the end, he turned out to be the exact opposite. How do things like that happen?
We all know a little secret the rest of them don’t: Mr Darcy was quite simply an introvert, just like us.
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