Surprise Authorities on Introversion?

These American Indians consider talking with nothing to say disrespectful.

Posted Nov 15, 2011

Lakota Indian

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

If one of the difficult things about being introverted for you is feeling pressured to behave in an extraverted way, you will love reading about the Lakota Indians in Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Author Kent Nerburn, a white man, interviews an Indian elder about the traditions handed down from his grandfathers. They learned by watching quietly, which is just what I prefer to do. Extraverts, however, tend to learn by talking. They crave stimulation, often noise. Listen to what the elder told Mr. Nerburn:

"We Indians know about silence," he said. "We aren't afraid of it. In fact, to us it is more powerful than words.

...Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live. Watch the animals to see how they care for their young. Watch the elders to see how they behave. Watch the white man to see what he wants. Always watch first, with a still heart and mind, then you will learn. When you have watched enough, then you can act.

With you it's just the opposite. You learn by talking. You reward the kids who talk the most in school. At your parties everyone is trying to talk. In your work you are always having meeting where everyone interrupts everyone else and everyone talks five, ten, or a hundred times. You say it is working out a problem. To us it just sounds like a bunch of people saying whatever comes into their heads and then trying to make what they say come around to something that makes sense.

Indians have known this for a long time. We like to use it on you. We know that when you are in a room and it gets quiet you get nervous. You have to fill in the space with sound. So you talk right away before you even know what you're going to say.... The elders tell us to stay silent and the white people will get nervous and say too much. Then you will be able to see into their hearts and know what they really mean. Then you will know what to do.

...My teacher thought talking meant thinking. The longer I talked, the happier she would be. It didn't matter what I said. I wouldn't do it. I thought it was disrespectful to talk when I didn't have anything to say. They said I was a bad student and I was dumb.... The teachers want everyone to be connected by words and looks. They don't like silence and they don't like empty space."

As a freshman in college, I saw the other students were talking a lot, trying to get noticed by teachers. But being an introvert, I found it hard to think fast enough to speak up before the topic had changed. I worked on speaking before my thoughts were jelled, which probably helped my grades. I wasn't being myself and those classes weren't comfortable for me. I wish I'd had the confidence to be satisfied watching the extraverts do their thing and learning my way.

Decades later I felt introverts were so misunderstood I must write a book to reassure them that we're fine. What a treat to find out that these Indians knew it all along.

P.S. On the third year of In Treatment, Debra Winger plays an Achiever Enneagram type, an actress overly concerned with what others think of her.

See my famous Enneagram type series on my other blog, this blog, and my web site.

About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

More Posts