It’s a question I get skewered by every few months: “Why are you so quiet?” And years of being blithely asked this – by teachers, bosses, the cool girls at school and “witty” types who decide to direct all eyes at the person not courting attention to see if they’ll go full-on Bambi-caught-in-the-headlights – has taught me that it is an incredibly boring question to be asked.
If you really wanted to get me talking, this should not in any way be your opening gambit. The opposite of an icebreaker, it’s like having someone wedge a lump of granite in your oesophagus and then expect you not to choke. Not a chance.
I've figured out three ways to respond: a) spit the granite right back at them, laced with sarcasm (“Oh, really, do you think so?!”) because what better way to fix a person’s quietness than by publicly interrogating their vocal chords?!; b) shrug politely and nonchalantly say, “Am I?” so they lose interest; or c) ask pointedly, as if you’d been conducting a psychological experiment on them all along: “Why? Does it bother you?”
Because this is the strange thing: it really does bother people.
To be fair, it’s easy to take someone’s quietness personally. Parents and primary-school teachers ingrain in us that, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”, so it’s no wonder we get suspicious when presented with a person who refuses to do small talk and silently sits there judging, tongue presumably bitten down to the tonsils.
It’s that or shyness, right? Even if you’re not being rude and judgmental, it’s widely assumed that quiet people don’t exactly help get the party started, and they’re bound to screw up a carefully calibrated seating plan thanks to their inconveniently crippling anxiety.
Unless, of course they’re male, in which case they tend to get a free pass on being tongue-tied and get lumped in with the Mr Darcys of this world – whether they look good in a lake-soaked shirt or not. They’re strong, sexy, silent types, labels that ironically scream: “I’M MYSTERIOUS AND ENIGMATIC. WHO NEEDS TO TALK WHEN I’M THIS ATTRACTIVELY INSCRUTABLE?!” Their deep, dark eyes and taut stomach muscles apparently say it all…
Quiet men get to be strong and sexy silent types but hushed-up women are generally considered brainless wallflowers, stony old maids or boring, tight-lipped cows
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Perhaps with the exception of my four-year-old self’s idol, Ariel, post-Ursula curse in The Little Mermaid, who nailed “mutely hot” (please note: I now understand this is very much not a thing to aspire to), hushed-up humans with vaginas are generally considered brainless wallflowers, stony old maids or boring, tight-lipped cows.
The disparity is infuriating, the double standard damning, when really, whatever your gender, what's wrong with being a bit quiet anyway?
From school reports that said, “Ella is conscientious, but very quiet in class” to, managers noting, “You're doing a cracking job, but you're very reserved”, I've been labelled “quiet” since even before the Ariel adoration began.
It’s as though the number of syllables that leave your mouth each day – not their content, not their meaning – is indicative of how hard you work, how good you are at what you do and how you live your life.
Quietness can be disarming, rather than charming, agreed, but it’s not a surefire symptom of shyness, and just because someone doesn’t provide a continuous stream of commentary doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say, or the confidence to back it up when they do. Quietness can be a choice, not a default setting for the browbeaten, and don’t think that because a person isn’t shouting they’re not to be reckoned with – they’re probably just picking their moment.
Yes, there are days when anxiety gets a grip on my lungs so they won’t pump the right amount of air to connect my brain with my voice box, and other days when, frankly, I just don’t want to talk – and can’t be bothered to paper over that with pleasantries – but mostly the quietness comes from the same place it does for those sweet couples who go out for dinner together and then just read their books: you might find it uncomfortable, but they’re actually pretty contented.
Of course, there are times when you should stand up and use your words, and being put in a situation where you are afraid to speak is never OK, but, day to day, not constantly fighting for airtime amid all the noise can make us better listeners, better sifters of fact, so when you do want to natter, it’s streamlined spiel and you mean it.
Having an inbuilt edit button also means fewer opportunities to be thoughtless, hurtful or just plain dangerous, like in politics right now, where not enough people are thinking before they speak and language is being used violently and hatefully to incite anger and division.
In fact, a lot more people could do with shutting the hell up.