Labelling of children starts early. Over the years, I have frequently heard a parent hastily explain a little one’s awkward reticence to speak when asked a question by describing her or him as just being shy. The child can quickly learn that being shy is a label pinned around their neck, often with subtly negative connotations.
Shyness and introversion are often seen as two sides of the same coin. Yet, Susan Cain made a clear distinction in her 2012 best-seller “Quiet.” From her perspective, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation…”. In contrast, she views introversion is merely a preference for a quieter environment. Outgoingness or extroversion are commonly valued as more useful personality attributes in today’s competitive world. But Cain wrote a strong defence of introversion in her book. On re-reading “Quiet” this week, I appreciated even more the wisdom of her subtitle:
The Power of introverts in a world That can’t Stop Talking.
On January 22nd, Canada began its second year under the shadow of Covid-19. One could easily become discouraged. Instead, I mentally compiled a “List of Blessings,” those qualities of life for which I am grateful. After the obvious selection of family, a roof over my head, food on the table and mostly good health, I identified the value of friendships. While I can appreciate the energies and verbal gifts of extroverts, I recognized that I am more drawn to connect on a deeper level with introverts. A “quiet” friend and I recently examined that attraction. Here is what we discovered.
At an early age, many of us lacked social tools to enter successfully into conversations. It can be a deficit of confidence in our own thoughts or words and a fear of having them ignored or ridiculed. Consequently, we becoming listeners. Instead of practicing our own verbal skills, we develop abilities to hear and understand the words of others. Because we are sensitive to being rejected or ignored, we gain a heightened capacity to read body language. As victims of social rejection over past years, we develop a deep sense of empathy for others who struggle with painful emotions.
As Cain points out, introverts need not view themselves merely as inferior talkers, but should recognize they possess the highly-valued asset of listening skills.
When two introverts find themselves in relationship, an onlooker might assume with amusement that their encounter will be an awkwardly silent failure. Instead, each introvert cautiously moves beyond their default role of listener and begins to enter into a growing transparency and openness. Being the perennial listener is superficially an easier role to perform for introverts—few words required—and can be rewarding in that one gets to enter into the life of the talker. But it can be lonely. Who will hear me? Extroverts will simply thrust themselves into the dialogue. Introverts lack the confidence or willingness to do so. When an introvert meets another similar personality, that barrier is more easily removed.
There are also “professional listeners.” Psychotherapists, counsellors, clergy, chaplains and all those on the receiving end of help lines have earned their position through demonstrated listening skills. When off the job, we need to balance our professional life with personal relationships where we can now be listened to, heard and understood. That practice maintains our own mental health.
And there are “performance introverts.” When a situation requires us to be talkative—-preaching, giving a presentation, arguing a legal case in court, dispensing advice, giving feedback—we can perform well. In unstructured settings—coffee break chats, cocktail parties, large social groups– where we have no defined role, we don’t do nearly as well.
To avoid making this thesis overly simplistic, I must hastily add that many people are at neither end of the intro/extrovert continuum, but find themselves comfortably in the middle. Perhaps, that unique ability to be both at ease with words and a good listener with ears is the best place to be.
What about that “She’s just shy” child? Rather than labelling, parents can help their little one to develop basic communication skills by gentle coaching and through role-play practice. Left unattended, shyness can indeed be chronically painful as Cain observed. Parents can also reassure a child that their quieter personality can be a valued asset in a “—world that can’t stop talking.”
I believe the greatest asset President Biden is bringing to the White House is his determination to be a listener—to experts, to colleagues, to world leaders and to everyday folks. His predecessor was merely a great talker.