Thursday, July 5, 2012

the courage to speak softly

The story goes that I, the youngest of three girls, didn’t start talking until I was 2 ½ years old. I understood what people were saying, and often responded in my own way — with nods or shaking my head or simply doing what people told me to — but I didn’t speak. This doesn’t surprise most people because I’m still usually quiet (unless you give me some alcohol or coffee, then I can be quite entertaining). Usually I’m more comfortable listening, and I could spend days alone. I’ve [mostly] learned to embrace that I’m an introvert.

But I do worry sometimes about balance. Some of the things I love most and feel called to are writing, reading and prayer, and these are mostly solitary activities. And yet I live in a house with four other people and have a high value for friendships and social outings, though admittedly sometimes I confuse my value for these things with the need for them to validate me. Sometimes my housemates (all introverts, too!) are ready to play a game or just sit around and chat, and I make the difficult decision to be by myself. It can be hard to wonder what I’m missing out on, or if I’m being completely antisocial.

The other day I came across this youtube talk about introversion. You might have heard this argument before (I have) — that extroverts, though they often get the spotlight in the public sphere, aren’t superior to introverts. In fact, introverts have something unique to offer our society, especially today when it seems like overstimulation rules and we’ve made busyness a sign of our worth. Into this crazyness introverts speak (or don’t speak, but live), reminding us that to be alone and to be quiet are productive in a profound way that we understand only when we can experience it.



When fellow introverts like Susan Cain abandon their natural tendency to be quiet and speak into the conversation, I feel validated and recognized. I don’t want to sound like a member of another disenfranchised group of people (who in reality have a lot to be thankful for), but let me say for the record that being an introvert is hard sometimes. Or rather, being an introvert around people who want me to speak is hard. As is being an introvert around people who like to hear themselves speak, or who rush to talk because they’re uncomfortable with silence — because then, when I do want to say something, it’s difficult to get a word in.

What was new about this talk was the historical perspective — that people used to work alone much more often, and there was more time and space for solitude in the way life was set up. I can’t help but think of what we miss out on when we fill our lives to the brim with people, tv and computers. Some of these activities may even masquerade as introverted time, and yet there’s something precious about not stimulating ourselves. I also like how Ms. Cain includes the notion of modesty into her definition of introversion. I don’t think she’s saying that all introverts are humble (and that extroverts aren’t), but rather that introverts usually have a difficult time tooting their own horn or enjoying the public recognition of their efforts. (Introverts, do you find this to be true, or are we extrapolating too much on this one?) And I love the argument for moving away from group work. Just because. (Working in groups is so stressful!)

And of course I love her closing exhortation: Have the courage to speak softly. 

So here’s my question for you all: What do you love about being an introvert (or extrovert)? I’d love to hear. Personally, I love the chance to people watch, and that I make observations or hear things that others often miss or forget.

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