Stop Asking Quiet People Why They’re So Quiet
Why We Hate it So Much — And What You Should Do Instead
In 7th grade, I had a health teacher named Mr. Schultz. Mr. Schultz was a gruff New Yorker type — in his mid forties, stout but muscular — the kind of guy you could picture having been a cop before deciding it wasn’t right for him and settling on a teaching career instead.
Mr. Schultz didn’t seem to ever want to teach us about health. Instead, he liked to tell stories. And in these stories, he was always the hero.
These stories were supposedly true, and usually about past students. In all of them, the student was neglected, abused, suicidal or some other flavor of mentally unwell. And in all of these stories, Mr. Schultz managed to save the day. He made a call to child protective services. He had a heart-to-heart talk. He got the kid into therapy. You get the idea.
Mr. Schultz, apparently, thought I was one of those kids that needed saving (I wasn’t). One day, when I walked up to his desk to hand in my homework, he said, “Hey Brockner, why you so quiet?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just am.”
And then he said, within earshot of other students, “Everything ok at home?”
He did this several times in various ways throughout the semester. Once he even approached my dad about the matter. During a charity car wash our class was holding, he leaned in to dad’s driver side window as dad was dropping me off. “Mr. Brockner,” he said, “why’s your daughter so quiet?”
Dad quipped, “I don’t know — I wish she were that way at home!”
Each time Mr. Schultz asked this question, it was obvious what he was implying — and it was a dick move, even if well-intentioned. Of course, even if I were being abused, it’s not like I would have felt comfortable enough to pour my heart out right there in front of my peers (or for that matter, in front of my father, who presumably could have been my abuser).
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about Mr. Schultz’s repeated inquisitions was his fundamental assumption that because I was quiet, there MUST be something wrong with me. That I was NOT normal. That for me to be quiet, I must be living a tortured existence.
And the worst part is, he’s not alone in his assumption. People have always made erroneous, often negative assumptions about me (and lots of other quiet people) because of our quiet nature.
But quiet people are normal. Researchers estimate that a substantial portion — one third to one-half — of the population is introverted. And although introversion isn’t necessarily the same thing as being quiet, introverts do tend to exhibit traits that are aligned with being quiet — for example, they initiate conversations less often than extroverts do and they energize from being alone rather than through social interaction.
Being Quiet is a Normal Way to Be
Being quiet is natural and how some people are wired. It’s not something one chooses. Yes, introverts (and extroverts, for that matter) can act out of character when the situation calls for it. An introvert can lead a group meeting, just as an extrovert can sit and listen. But overall, where you fall on the spectrum isn’t something you choose.
And that’s a big reason why it’s so off-putting to us quiet folk when you ask why we’re so quiet. You’re assuming it’s a choice and then, in a way, asking us to defend it.
You’re asking me to explain something that just is the way it is. It’s hard to do that. Imagine if I asked you why your eyes are blue or why you’re so short. Sure, you could provide a scientific or genetic explanation for why you have “x” trait, but for the most part, it just is what it is. You can’t change your eye color or height. I can’t change that I’m quiet. It is what it is and will always be so.
Society Undervalues Quiet Folk
Although it’s off-putting, I think most people are well-intentioned when they ask the question. Perhaps they see it as a jumping off point. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t offer anything freely, so they attempt to strike up a conversation about my most obvious trait, which is, ironically, my non-obviousness.
Because isn’t that, at its core, what being quiet is? It’s being non-obvious. Not standing out.
And what does that say about me, in a society that values standing out? Does this mean I’m not valuable?
Employers seem to see it that way. For example, I’ve seen many job postings that specifically solicit extroverted candidates. I’ve never, however, seen a posting that sought out introverts. Our businesses and our schools love their extroverts.
As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, states in an op-ed for The New York Times:
Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
But the problem with this view is that many creative ideas come from solitude. As Cain notes, some of the greatest inventions were borne of long periods of solitude. It’s where Steve Wozniak produced the personal computer. It’s also where Pablo Picasso produced much of his art. He even once said: “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”
But unfortunately, this view doesn’t align with how most businesses operate, and as a result introverts are often misunderstood in the workplace and forced to work in environments where they don’t thrive.
I’m all too familiar with these environments, and with being misinterpreted and misunderstood in them.
When I worked in marketing for a Fortune 500 company, the vice president of my department once expressed concern to my boss that I didn’t seem engaged or interested in my job. The problem was, though, that my only interactions with her were during our bi-weekly team meetings — meetings in a large corporate conference room that included 25–30 people (most of whom, by the way, were senior to me). These were also meetings I couldn’t prepare for because there were no agendas sent out beforehand.
This is not the kind of environment where I shine. In response to the vice president’s concern, my boss defended me, explaining that I’m the kind of person who likes to absorb information and withhold comment until I’ve considered an issue from all sides. My boss was right. I’m not great with the kind of off-the-cuff communication expected in American corporate culture. Most introverts aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean we’re disinterested, disengaged or not valuable to an organization. It just means that, in many ways, us quiet folk are not set up for success in the typical business or school environment.
And if managers and companies want to get the best out of us (and they should want that, right?), then perhaps they should be more understanding of how we operate and more open to allowing introverted-friendly work environments.
Now I’m not saying that every company must cater to every need of its introverts and quiet folk. Quiet people need to take responsibility for coming out of their shells when the situation calls for it. However, I do think it behooves companies and managers to allow, accept, and recognize different work styles.
For example, if you want to get the best out of some people, allow them space and time to think — even if it means letting them break away from the open office to find a quiet work spot. Send out agendas before meetings so they can come up with ideas and thoughts. Let them know if you expect them to speak on a topic or express ideas. After all, research shows that allowing individuals to come up with ideas independently is much more effective than group brainstorming, so if companies want more and better novel ideas, they’d be better served by encouraging more quiet time for all workers anyway.
I would also encourage managers and executives to think twice about pre-judging a subordinate who seems disinterested, recognizing that he or she may just be introverted and introspective.
That same VP who expressed worry that I wasn’t engaged in my work later changed her mind after we finally had our first quarterly one-on-one meeting. I’m a good conversationalist, as many introverts are, when I have time to prepare. I asked good questions about the direction of the business after a recent buyout, and I was even able to bond with her about farmer’s markets in the area. After the meeting, she told my direct boss that I was “lovely” — and she no longer held the opinion that I was “disengaged.”
Had she not taken the time to have the one-on-one with me, she may have always assumed I wasn’t interested in my job — and who knows how that could have affected my trajectory at the company.
But as I’ve said before — she certainly wasn’t alone in her assumptions and neither was Mr. Schultz.
And I think that’s the other thing people are getting at when they ask why I’m so quiet. People assume that us quiet folk are disengaged. So when they ask why we’re so quiet, what they’re often really asking is: why are you so reserved? Why are you so aloof? Why don’t you like us?
So the “why are you so quiet?” question is difficult to answer because it’s often based on faulty assumptions.
But you know what? In true introvert fashion, after thinking about this topic for awhile, I think I can finally respond to this question beyond the “I just am” answer.
So, Why Are Quiet People Quiet?
People assume that I’m quiet because I hate them. But really, it’s often the opposite.
I really, thoroughly enjoy listening. I love people. Not in the “kumbaya” sense — I just mean I love observing them. Their jokes, their stories, their insecurities, their gestures, their passions, their style.
Quiet people notice these things. When I’m in a room full of people, I feel like I’m in a museum. Each person is a breathing work of art.
I’m quiet because I like to let ideas marinate. I don’t like to present things half-cooked. I’m not the type of person who will rattle off a million ideas during a corporate meeting. But I am the type of person who will knock your socks off with the right idea. The one that fits. I want to give you the best version of what I have to give,.
And finally, I’m quiet because yes, I’m shy and guarded. Which basically just means I sometimes feel awkward and tense during social encounters, especially with unfamiliar people. It’s not really a big deal. About 40–50% of people are shy to some degree.
So, that’s the answer to the question.
And now you probably understand why I don’t like when people ask — it’s a lot to dig up and explain!
And I suspect that’s why a lot of us quiet folk don’t like when you ask why we’re quiet.
So, if you’re curious about us, I have a recommendation for you. Please, spare us the awkwardness, and instead of asking why we’re so quiet, talk to us about something (anything) else.
Notice something about us — something we’re wearing, something we’re doing, something you’ve overheard us talk about — and strike up a conversation about that. If you work with us, ask about a project we’re working on. If you’re a neighbor, ask about our pets, our children, our daily running habit.
Or, here’s an idea: ask us what we’re passionate about, what we’re interested in — what movies, books, or music we like.
I know, it may not be your usual go-to conversation.
But, if you do this, you may realize we have more in common than you think. And you’ll realize that we don’t hate you, we’re not aloof, and we’re not disengaged.
If you do this, you may even have a difficult time shutting us up.