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I got this message from “quiet” Kate a few days ago:


Dear Matt,

So sorry for bugging you when I know you get SO many emails everyday! My mom loves your blog, she told me and my dad about it. She reads your new entries out loud almost every day at the dinner table! I bet you’re super creeped out now lol but don’t be. She’s not a crazy stalker. Well… she’s not crazy anyway lol. Anyway, after she told me about you I went and looked up your blogs. I love so many of them! I especially loved what you wrote about introverts. I don’t know if you remember it (this was a few months ago) but you stood up for introverts and said you are one yourself…. which was a surprise!

I’m writing to you because I’m very introverted also. I’m in tenth grade and I’ve been this way for as long as I remember. Everyone calls me “the quiet girl.” Even the few friends that I have will introduce me to other people by saying “Oh here’s Kate, she’s quiet.” I usually end up sitting in the back of the class and alone at lunch. People will come up to me pretending like they want to be friends but I think they really are just picking on me. They’ll say “why are you so quiet….. you’re so quiet all the time…. are you always this quiet…. blah blah…” I get called boring a lot but it’s not like I don’t have any interests. I like to read and I like to think I’m pretty artistic. I just don’t like to talk all the time.

Sorry for complaining but I get so sick of it sometimes! I don’t know why people can’t let me be however I am, you know? Like you said in your post, everyone is always telling me that I need to come out of my shell and “open up.” Some of my teachers tell me that I’m not going to get a job or anything when I graduate if I don’t stop being so shy and quiet. It’s gotten to the point where I hate going to school (it was at that point a long time ago lol). People look at me like a freak. And then when I do open up and say something or answer a question in class, everyone stares at me like “oh the quiet girl is talking.” It gives me a lot of anxiety. Sorry for ranting so much. I guess I should get to the point. So, you’re successful even though you’re an introvert. How did you overcome your introversion? How did you learn to be normal? I’m sorry for wasting your time but I really need someone to help me with this. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Kate (I don’t want to give my last name or anything because I thought you might want to respond on your blog for other people struggling with being introverted)

 

A tragic letter in many ways. Here’s my response:

 

Dear Kate,

You aren’t wasting my time.

My time is mine, your time is yours. The only person who can waste mine is me, and the only person who can waste yours is you. For instance, this morning I spent four minutes watching this video of a moose playing in a sprinkler.

The moose didn’t waste my time — I wasted it. And now you’ve watched it and wasted yours. You’re welcome.

Kate, you apologized more times in four paragraphs than I have in four years. The difference is that I’ve done many things wrong in four years, yet I’m just too stubborn and prideful to admit it. You, on the other hand, did NOTHING wrong in those four paragraphs. Nothing. Kate, never apologize for having an opinion. Never apologize for expressing your feelings. You aren’t bugging me or annoying me. Besides, even if I was bugged or annoyed, that would be my problem. Not yours.

You’re “ranting” because you have something to say. I bet that’s a shock to those presumptuous kids in your class. Imagine that: you have something to say. The truth is, most of them just want you to speak because your silence intimidates them. They don’t want to hear your ideas and your perspectives (or anyone else’s, besides their own), they just want noise. They want noise because we live in a culture that’s afraid of what will happen if everyone shuts up for long enough to formulate an original thought or two.

Quiet? You aren’t quiet.

When you need or want to communicate something, you communicate it — and effectively, I might add. Someone calling you “quiet” for only speaking when you have something to say is like them calling you “anorexic” for only eating when you’re hungry. This country is full of enough blathering loudmouths who drone on and on with pointless banalities nobody cares to hear. Just because you’re purposeful with your speech doesn’t mean you’re “weird.” Let them wrestle each other in puddles of their own verbal vomit. You don’t want any part of that, and why would you?

Quick story:

A little while ago I found myself in a group of “talkative” people. I think the “conversation” started with one person complaining about their health problems. Then another person offered a competing complaint. Then another person submitted their own. Then another. Then another. Each participant offered no substantive response to the last person’s remarks. They simply grabbed the rhetorical spotlight with an unconvincing attempt at a transition, like, “Huh, yeah, well here’s what happened to ME…”

Next the “discussion” awkwardly jumped to a fascinating topic about how expensive it is to get your oil changed at Jiffy Lube.

I think they then gossiped about a mutual friend for a while, before leaping into a gab-session about a network TV show I’d never seen.

After 45 minutes, one of them turned to me with that infamous question you and I have both heard more times than we can count: “Why are you so QUIET?”

Uh, maybe because I’d rather be stabbed in the ear with a rusty butter knife than be subjected to one more minute of this tedious talkfest.

There are a thousand things wrong with the “why are you so quiet” question, but let’s concentrate on the fact that it’s rude and pushy. If the quiet person is quiet because of some kind of social anxiety (which wasn’t the case in my situation, I just have Stupid Babbling Anxiety) then how in God’s name could anyone find it appropriate to purposefully embarrass them by highlighting their self consciousness in front of everyone? How is the “quiet” person supposed to respond? Are they supposed to bark on command like a dog? Are they supposed to just suddenly dive into a conversation in which they are clearly either uncomfortable or uninterested? And whatever the reason for their “quietness,” are they actually supposed to share it with this person just because he or she was intrusive enough to ask?

“Oh, thanks for giving me the chance to justify myself to you! I was HOPING someone would shove me onto the stage and demand that I reveal the inner workings of my mind to all assembled!”

The only thing worse than the quiet question is the quiet observation; the “you’re so quiet” comments that you mentioned.

Kate, neither of us will ever understand the oblivious tastelessness of someone who’d walk up to a stranger and simply point out some face about their personal or physical composition. This happens so often, particularly in a school setting, that you’ll soon be tempted to respond to their observation with one of your own:

“You’re quiet!”

“Yes, and your face is oddly shaped!”

These people — the ones who label you, or demand that you justify your personality to them, or your “friends” who put you in a box and then introduce you to other people that way — don’t have pure intentions, for the most part. Many times, they are simply trying to “win.” Win what, you ask? I don’t really know. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the “social scene” at school isn’t really “social” at all.

It’s a competition. A game.

It’s a psychologically oppressive and emotionally violent Battle of Witlessness. You are unfairly seen as weak and submissive because you don’t run your mouth at warp-speed, so your peers step on you, hoping to elevate themselves in the process.

They call you quiet and boring just because you aren’t always making sounds with your mouth. But that doesn’t make you quiet. And boring? Hardly.

Your whole being stirs with concepts and notions that could change the world. The only people who are “boring” are the ones who think a person is boring just because she isn’t loud. I think you’re fascinating. I think you’ll get out there and do big things — HUGE things — with this life you’ve been given. Your mind is a vibrant and awesome place, brimming with thoughts, and ideas, and truth, and beauty.

You’re artistic? You like to read? I would have known that about you even if you hadn’t told me. You’re an introvert, after all. By definition, you love to learn, create, and think.

None of this makes you weird, and it doesn’t even have to make you “shy.” Shyness and introversion aren’t a packaged deal. Being shy means you have social anxiety. Being introverted means you are energized by being alone, or in small groups, where you can hear those wonderful thoughts spinning around in your head. You prefer intimate and meaningful communication over small talk. You’re more likely to have a limited collection of loyal friends than a large gaggle of friendly acquaintances. Sound familiar? That’s all it means to be an introvert, Kate.

Many times, the school system turns introverts into “shy people” by constructing a social environment where introverts are made to feel like freaks and outcasts. In other words, if you’re shy, that’s probably because everybody keeps calling you shy.

You see how this works? They erect the box around you, and before long that last wall is built and you’re trapped.

Or you feel trapped, anyway.

People don’t understand that introverts have minds that are constantly engaged. Maybe even a little too engaged, sometimes. For this reason, social interaction can be exhausting. We aren’t afraid of it, we just prefer to regulate it.

But here I am rambling on, and I haven’t even answered your questions. (Funny thing about us introverts: we can go on for hours if the subject is interesting to us.)

So, how do you overcome your introversion? How do you learn to be normal?

You don’t. And there is your first marvel, that you don’t (to paraphrase John Proctor, played in the film by an introverted Daniel Day Lewis).

Introversion is not to be overcome. Please don’t try. I beg you. Don’t try. I mean, where would we be if societies in the past had employed our modern strategy of treating introversion as a character defect? I can tell you we might not have been blessed with the historical contributions of noted introverts like Einstein, Newton, Yeats, Proust, Shakespeare, Orwell, Edison, Plato, Mother Teresa, and Ghandi. In fact, many (if not most) of humanity’s greatest inventors, engineers, creators, thinkers, writers, artists and revolutionaries were and are introverts — like you.

Ah, but they’re a boring bunch, aren’t they?

Look, you are a human being, you are flawed, there are surely things about you that do need to change. We all have habits and temptations that we must overcome.

But introversion isn’t one of them.

It isn’t a disease or a weakness. It’s a strength. Seriously, Kate, a strength. Your mind works differently, you see the world differently, you interact differently, and that is a magnificent thing. Your differences make you indispensable.

Soon, you’ll leave school and you’ll find yourself standing in the wilderness of the “real world.” You’ll discover, unfortunately, that a lot of the bad things about school are still present in this wilderness — we’ve still got bullies out here, and jerks, and cliques, and fads, and social ladder climbers, and all the rest of it.

But we also have freedom. We have the liberty to fully become ourselves, and to use our minds and our personalities, rather than suppress them.

Don’t destroy yourself just to be more acceptable to the Peer Collective.

And don’t worry about being normal.

You aren’t boring, but normal is.

Let them call you quiet. Pretty soon, you’ll be climbing mountains and they’ll still be down at the base, talking about the weather.

Go on with your introverted self, Kate.

Thanks for writing.

Sincerely,

Matt

*****

Note to the people accusing me of “attacking” or “labeling” extroverts: I’m not, I didn’t, and I don’t. In fact, you’ll notice that I never even used to word “extrovert” in this post. Not once. When I go after people who blabber or gossip or bully introverts, I’m simply an solely talking about people who blabber or gossip or bully introverts. If you don’t, then I’m not talking about you. I never said all extroverts do this. I never even insinuated it.

Extroverts are wonderful people also. I’m married to an extrovert.

Finally, I’m not encouraging Kate to embrace her social anxiety. I’m encouraging her to embrace her introversion, and in so doing, overcome her social anxiety. I’ve been able to strike this balance, but it took time. I’m an introvert, yet I enjoy public speaking and do it regularly. I spoke on the air for a living for eight years. I like being on stage in front of large crowds talking about something. I just despise small talk and I’m not very good at it.

*****

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