How to Squelch an Introvert

It was the spring semester of 2000, first student teaching assignment, second day. My cooperating teacher taught music at a private elementary school, and the big fifth-grade musical was in the works. When the school day ended, I followed my cooperating teacher to a classroom for a show-planning meeting with two of her colleagues.

They’d taught together for years, knew all of the fifth-graders like their own children, and had already listened to the musical more times than I’d watched The Princess Bride. Like a cat at a tennis match, I listened as the three teachers tossed around names, casting ideas, inside jokes, and warnings of theater moms, the conversation developing so rapidly that their remarks often overlapped and I felt myself out of breath just trying to keep up. Eventually, something was apparently accomplished, the meeting concluded, and we extricated ourselves from the student desks to go home for the evening. It was at this point that the art teacher looked at me and asked: “Do they tell you you have to be real quiet when you’re student teaching? Because you’re allowed to talk, you know.”

I can’t share my response with you, because I honestly don’t remember it. At first, no doubt, I laughed awkwardly; next, I either (a) said nothing or (b) said something stupid that I have since repressed. Actually, I must have repressed my answer – silent or spoken – because, again, I have no memory of it.

Fourteen years later, I’m still not sure what the best response could have been. All things considered, the “best” response might have been something like, “Oh, ha ha, well, you three all know each other so well, and since you know the students better than I do, I preferred to just listen this time so I could learn the ropes. By the way, I love how you’ve done your hair.” That would have been polite and non-awkward, I think.

Really, though, here’s what went on in my head once the confusion abated and I could reflect:

“Dude. Lady. I have never even glimpsed the score for this musical. I haven’t met three quarters of the kids you mentioned, the other quarter I have seen exactly once, and I certainly don’t know their names. You three know every kid in the school, you know exactly what you want for the musical, and you can evidently read each others’ minds so efficiently that you interrupt each other to predict what the next person is going to say. What could I possibly have contributed to this conversation, and when could I possibly have done so?”

Because – please pardon my bluntness – that was a dumb thing to say. I can’t imagine what she thought I could have said during the meeting. I do know, though, that something became clear to me that day: I am marked. It might be a scarlet “I” on my clothing, visible to everybody but myself, warning people that I’m an Introvert. Or a tattoo, some place where I can’t see it, that says “Socially Challenged.” Or maybe just an aura. An aura of awkwardness.

There’s no other explanation. I mean, even a highly gregarious socialite, a Miss Congeniality in the flesh, would have spent most of that meeting as an observer, right? One would have had to interrupt in order to get a word in, and since this was a planning meeting, even a Miss Congeniality wouldn’t have had much to offer after only two days of student teaching. So plainly there’s something about my silence that differs in nature from the silence of someone with a more sanguine personality.

On one hand, that’s okay. I didn’t always think so, but I’ve accepted the fact that we can’t all – shouldn’t all – be extroverts. Moreover, the recent influx of books and articles on introversion has – as far as I can tell – helped people to understand that some of us just don’t feel compelled to be the life of the party. (Or to even go to the party).

Nonetheless, I sometimes sense that I will always be a little backward. That, by seemingly having little to say, I make people feel uncomfortable. Worried, even.

So if you’ve ever been concerned about me – or another introvert in your life – let me reassure you: I’m fine. We’re fine. Some of us enjoy listening. And, yes, we sometimes struggle to find things to say, but it’s only because we need more time, not because we’ve taken a vow of silence or because we don’t like you. AND – speaking for myself, at least – trying to jump into a quickly flowing conversation is daunting. It feels like interrupting, which feels rude, and what if we interrupt and then our words end up coming out wrong and weird and killing the conversation? No, thank you.

Here’s then, is my smidgen of unsolicited advice: if you want to get an introvert talking, then leave room for that to actually happen. Maybe even ask questions. Because, if it’s not obvious by now, some of us quiet ones have quite a bit to say. We just need to feel comfortable saying it. And if we’re led to believe that our silence is troubling, quirky, or alien, trust me: we will never feel comfortable enough to say anything.

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5 thoughts on “How to Squelch an Introvert

  1. I Love how you feel socially awkward in your introvertedness (I know it’s not a word), yet I feel awkward in my extrovertiveness (again, not a word). Or rather, I’m comfortable in my skin, but feel that I make others feel awkward. As long as we can just relax and visit, I’m okay with that.

    • It definitely helps to be aware of how people feel when you’re around them. It’s one big difference between a good conversationalist and a person who never stops talking.

  2. Pingback: People are Fatal | Through a Glass Darkly

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