People out there have a lot of funny ideas about quiet people, the worst one being that all quiet people are alike. There are about 10 million reasons why someone might not talk very much, running the gamut from being shy, to hating you, to having sold their voice to a witch in return for legs. People who don’t recognize this come up with their own ridiculous assumptions about what quiet people are up to. Even quiet people themselves are guilty of assigning their own traits to all other quiet people in the world. Here’s a few of those assumptions.
Quiet People Are Looking For Your Help There’s a common assumption that all quiet people really want to be talkative, but can’t be. They just lack confidence, or are really bad with words, but if you just reached out a helping hand and gave them a gentle push, you could rescue them from their silent prison, from which they must constantly look out in misery at normal people talking and enjoying themselves. First, many people are pretty comfortable with not talking very much, for various reasons other than having low self-confidence or bad social skills. Or at least they are comfortable until someone makes a point of how little they are talking and tries to awkwardly force them into spitting out more words for the sake of words. Even the people who do just lack confidence and wish they could be more chatty don’t usually appreciate the kind of “help” usually offered, which might involve suddenly putting them on the spot in a group conversation, or pretending one of the few things you know about them is suddenly a very interesting subject to you. “So I hear you work in an accounting office! Tell me all about it! I bet you have a … desk … and everything!” Other well-meaning tactics involve pushing them into some embarrassing party participation role, like forcing them onstage for karaoke, making them chug something, pushing a stripper on them, or whispering to the waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s on their birthday so the whole staff will come over and sing one of those humiliating songs, all in the name of getting the person to “loosen up” and “come out of their shell.” Even worse, when they do gamely participate, the horribly awkward results are often applauded with extremely fake and over-the-top enthusiasm, as if the person’s budding confidence is extremely fragile and every sign of progress must be heavily nurtured. “Man, you really ROCKED that version of ‘Don’t Stop Believing‘! Who knew you were such a wild man!” The root problem is projection. A lot of people just think, “If I wasn’t talking, that would mean something was wrong, and I would want someone to pay attention to me, put me on the spot, and push me into something crazy. That would snap me out of it!” Which is probably true for them, but different people have different personalities, and for some people, that’s the wrong cure entirely, while for some other people, it’s not even a problem that needs a “cure.” Before jumping right into “helping” a quiet person, maybe it’s best to figure out what’s behind their lack of chattiness. Which is a whole new set of misconceptions, like …
Quiet People Lack Social Skills The assumption here is that quiet people are quiet because they don’t know what to say, or how to say it. They’d like to make jokes, but they always come out awkward. They want to make cleverly flirtatious comments about how young the host’s lovely wife looks, but somehow it always comes out sounding like they are planning to rape her. And that’s why they stay quiet. “Sir, your wife looks so young I thought she was your daughter at first! I’m sure her genitals are quite taut! Er …” Knowing when, and to whom, it’s appropriate to say things has nothing to do with how quiet or talkative you normally are. There are embarrassing faux pas blurters among both quiet and chatty people, and there are tactful wits in both groups too. Sometimes quiet people tie these things together as an excuse, since if being quiet is part of your personality, and lack of communication skills are tied to being quiet, well, you can’t be expected to do anything about it. This is bullshit. I’m a quiet person, and also used to be terrible at saying the right things in public, starting from when I was in children’s Sunday school and we all had to fill out a registration form. I was so proud that I had seen forms before that when the teacher was explaining what “M/F” meant, I remembered what the field was called on most forms and shouted, “IT’S SEX!” in front of 50 children and about five teachers including my mom. I learned very quickly that while there is nothing wrong with sex, that is not the place and volume to proclaim it. Makes a good “Kids Say The Darnedest Things” story later though. Look, if you have some form of autism spectrum disorder or Tourette’s, then of course that’s going to be a real problem that can’t be solved with just practice and common sense, but being quiet isn’t either of those things. Talkative people might find out by trial and error, but quiet people can find out just as well by watching talkative people trying and erring. Not talking isn’t an excuse to not observe. And if you really can’t do it on your own, some therapists do life skills coaching. If you’re put off by the idea of therapy, just think of it as coaching, or personal training. You can learn how to participate in conversations same as you’d learn to run a marathon — with a lot of practice and sweating and going to the bathroom in your pants. Only while you are practicing. In actual situations this is considered socially inappropriate. Just because you don’t naturally like to talk doesn’t mean you can’t intellectually learn the right thing to say so you can hit on someone you’re interested in without being pepper sprayed, or deal with customer service without being rerouted into the “difficult customer” queue.
Quiet People Lack Confidence Most people fit quiet people into the “shy nerd” stereotype, where the quiet person is intimidated by other people, or is afraid of being laughed at, or undervalues him or herself. But as long as we’re going to movie stereotypes, there’s also the silent kung fu master, who doesn’t need to say anything, even when insulted, because he knows damn well he’s a kung fu master and can remove your spine whenever he wants. Just saying, when you see those old people in the park doing the tai chi, you should give them a wide berth. I’m not saying that smiling arrogantly because the words of lesser mortals mean nothing to you is a positive thing, but just demonstrating that a completely overconfident person can be just as silent as an extremely under-confident one. And there are lots of other reasons that people of varying confidence levels might not feel like talking much. Just off the bat: They could hate everyone present, they could be tired, they might not know very much about the subject you’re discussing, they might not believe in small talk, or they might be worrying about other problems, like whether they buried their victims deep enough. Six feet. Don’t be lazy. All kinds of different people have all kinds of different ideas of when they should and shouldn’t talk. It’s when a person does decide to talk that you can evaluate their confidence levels. If that person who was giving you monosyllabic responses a moment ago is suddenly up on stage giving a dynamic speech, maybe they were busy rehearsing their speech in their head while talking to you. Or maybe they hate you. Who knows.
Quiet People Want To Be Left Alone A lot of times, being quiet tends to go hand-in-hand with not going to a lot of social events, leading people to believe the quiet person doesn’t like the company of other people. This is one of the reasons more outgoing people try to “help” quiet people — because they confuse it with being withdrawn and antisocial, which most people would agree is generally unhealthy. A certain number of people do like solitude and don’t feel a great need for company, but most people have a pretty strong need for friends. It can be hard to see sometimes in the non-partying, stay-at-home types, but often they depend on friends just as much as anyone else, but just a few close ones, as opposed to keeping up with dozens of people. An extrovert’s intimate gathering of a few close friends. One common definition of the introvert/extrovert divide is that extroverts gain energy from being around people, whereas introverts spend energy when hanging around people. So parties make introverts tired, even if they like everyone there and are having a good time. It’s like playing a pickup basketball game with your friends. You might have a hell of a time, but you’re going to be very tired after an hour (or in my case, a minute) and have to call it, and go home. And you can’t play every single day, it would wear you out. It doesn’t mean you hate basketball or you don’t like the other players, you just literally don’t have the energy to do it all. Well, or at least it would require some bending of the space-time continuum. Extroverts, who get amped up at parties, don’t have this social energy burnout problem, and the only reason they could imagine for someone leaving is if they don’t like the party or the guests, or just don’t like being around people. It’s hard for them to grasp that someone could have had a blast at the party and loved everyone there, but was only be able to handle an hour or two, and would have to pass on any more the rest of that week. Needless to say, a lot of quiet people are introverts, and they do suffer from social energy drain. Sometimes what looks like a person trying to be a hermit and avoid the world is someone who’s really just the same as anyone in terms of needing friends and company and distractions, but just in different quantities, and less often.
Quiet People Are Mad At You I’ve suggested a couple of times that quiet people may be mad at you or hate you, which is always a possibility, but this can also be a big misconception. So it turns out everyone has a different idea of what conveys a neutral or “baseline” attitude toward someone — like if you passed this person in the hallway, and you were neither mad at them, nor happy with them, nor had anything in particular to say to them, what you should do to indicate there is no change in your relationship. Some people feel a smile is required, some people feel you should also say, “Hello,” and some people also feel you should ask, “How’s it going?” But most of these people oddly enough don’t feel like they should stay around long enough to hear the answer. Anyway, for them, the “baseline” expression would be a smile. However, some people, particularly quiet ones, feel like the correct way to indicate “everything between us is the same as when I last saw you an hour ago” is to do nothing, which makes sense from a purely logical standpoint. There’s nothing wrong with people having different ways to indicate, “We are still OK with each other!” until people forget other people might have different ways to say it. People who believe a perfunctory “How’s it going?” is required can become infuriated at a person strolling by quietly under the “no news is good news” approach, convinced their silent associate is deliberately snubbing them. The misunderstanding can extend to the actual conversation, where some people feel like a smile should be your default expression if nothing’s wrong, whereas some people feel like if you don’t want to express any particular emotion, you would just let your face relax. This probably ties into the introvert/extrovert energy thing, since smiling can be a small social energy drain. Unfortunately, apparently a relaxed face looks angry or sullen to some people. Is she angry at you? Or just resting her face? That’s probably why I got yelled at as a kid every time we left a Thanksgiving or Christmas get-together, where my mom would accuse me of putting on a “sour face” while talking to the relatives and making them think I hated them, when all I was doing was not smiling. Even when I grew up, I was surprised how many friends told me they thought I hated them when we first met, even though I only hated about half of them. Whenever I meet strangers now I just smile all the damn time, and drink some water and take a breather when I get a chance. It’s a lot less trouble than explaining all this.
Quiet People Are Smarter/Deeper Than You Obviously, this one is put forth by some quiet people themselves, in a sort of overdefensive backlash against being treated like the weird, abnormal ones. History has always shown that the most sensible way to fix discrimination against one group is to turn around and discriminate against the other group instead. What’s the old saying? Two wrongs make a right? You see that kind of attitude in articles like this one, where the author talks about how introverts are “more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts,” and how extroverts’ conversation is “98-percent-content-free talk.” Or take this blog, which suggests you “feel bad for extraverts or as I like to call them: the life-disadvantaged.” It’s normal to be kind of resentful when you’re misunderstood, and it’s normal to feel like the universe should make it up to you by giving you some kind of positive trait to make up for it. I’m not sure if I should blame comic books for the common narrative of “everyone always treated me like I was weird and different but it turns out this weirdness is actually because I have special powers that make me better than them,” but it seems like everyone wants to play that card these days. Marvel Directory The X-Men are actually not as good a metaphor for real life as you would think. The same arguments we’re always making about how this or that trait of an introvert or quiet person isn’t wrong, just different, applies in reverse to extroverts. Maybe introverts don’t understand why extroverts need to talk so much or why they need so many friends and social events, but that’s not wrong either, it’s just different. You know, like Apple products. I don’t buy that introverts are necessarily smarter, either. I’ve met a ton of quiet, introverted people that were dumb as bricks. I do think it’s a lot easier to look smart when you don’t talk as much, because of that whole kung fu master vibe, and because anything stupid you think is less likely to come out of your mouth. On the other hand, I think there’s some virtue in being willing to take risks and say things that might be wrong, as long as you’re brave enough to fess up to and correct your mistake afterward. Basically, nobody’s wrong, except for people who aren’t willing to accept the other group of people they don’t understand.