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Quiet Is Not a Four-Letter Word

"It's OK to be sensitive, and yes, quiet..."

I still remember one horrible day in high school when a math teacher called attention to my quietness. He told the whole class that I was the quietest student he'd ever had in his 22 years of teaching. Of course, everyone turned around to look at me, as if I was some kind of freak. I was humiliated and felt deep shame. I truly believed there was something wrong with me. It didn't even cross my mind that there was something wrong with a teacher who would make such a statement. Unfortunately, an accumulation of such experiences led me to hate myself for being so reserved. I've since stopped hating myself, but I have to admit, I still cringe when I hear myself described as quiet. I've even dubbed it the "Q word," as if it's some sort of four-letter expletive.

So what's so bad about being quiet? Why is it so difficult to accept, even embrace it as a source of strength? I believe a big reason is that it doesn't match the cultural ideal. For example, how many times have you seen a television show or a movie where the main character was reserved, cautious and thoughtful, and where this was seen as positive? Most often, the media portrays popular characters as outgoing. Quiet characters, when they are seen, often assume the role of a victim.

In Elaine Aron's book, The Highly Sensitive Person, she describes some extremely important research dealing with this issue of culture. The study, conducted by Xinyin Chen and Kenneth Rubin of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Yuerong Sun of Shanghai Teachers University, compared children in both cities to determine what traits made children popular. Among the group of 480 students in Shanghai, "shy" and "sensitive" children were the most sought-after as friends. In contrast, among the 296 Canadian children, shy and sensitive children were the least desirable. This study shows that whether you're accepted by others can have little to do with you personally and much to do with the prevailing cultural norms.

I can't wait for Susan Cain's book to come out, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Her book promises to look at "specific physiological and psychological advantages to being an introvert." I'm kind of obsessed with her blog right now. She offers so many positive examples of being quiet and reserved, and there's some great discussion going on at her site. Finding her work came at just right time, as I'm on a renewed quest to accept my quiet side.

It's in that spirit of acceptance that I wrote this list today.

Some Really Great Things about Being Quiet:

  • Being quiet often means you're a good listener. People may start seeking you out because they know you'll be there for them to really listen, and not just talk about how something similar happened to you.
  • It can actually be easier to get to know other people if you're quiet. I frequently ask others a lot of questions about themselves, and learn a lot in the process. I frequently know details about people that others may not know.
  • When I do talk, I find that others listen to me more because I'm not always chattering. They figure if I'm talking, it must be significant. :)
  • I can hear myself think. And sometimes I have some important ideas and insights! (other times, not so much...)
  • I'm in touch with my feelings (I know that sounds hokey). But if you're always talking, how do you ever know what you're feeling? Feelings are an important source of information that if ignored, can get you in a lot of trouble.
  • I get a lot of work done because I'm not typically engaged in a lot of idle conversation.

I'm sure there are lots of other great things about being quiet. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Still, there are times when I'm having a bad day, and I wish I were more naturally outgoing. At those times, it helps to remind myself of the study comparing children in China and Canada. I tell myself that it's OK to be sensitive and yes, quiet. After all, if I lived in China, I'd be very popular!

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
 from doing all the things in life 
you’d like to.

–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project, with its own Facebook page here.

I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.