Listening In

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The right to remain silent

29th January 2008

We hear a great deal about freedom of speech but what about freedom of silence?

Ironically, from the nation that talks the most about talking comes a push for the right to say nothing at all.

It comes in the form of an American magazine article called “Caring for your introvert” by The Atlantic correspondent Jonathan Rauch. Written in 2003, it continues to draw more hits than any other piece on the magazine’s website.

As an introvert, he says, he belongs to one of ‘the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world’.

Being introverted does not necessarily mean being shy; it just means that people tire you out.

While extroverts need company like the Energizer Bunny needs batteries, introverts recharge by spending time alone.

To introverts, other people are like sunlight: good in short stretches but prolonged exposure leaves you burned.

Still, Rauch makes it clear that introverts don’t harbour a grudge against the rest of the human race: ‘We love people… We just can’t socialize with them all the time. We want to hold their hand or hug them or just sit quietly and read a book with them.’

What introverts don’t want to do is go to cocktail parties and make small talk.

But the world is filled with people who do – and they set the standard for what is considered normal and desirable behaviour.

Some introverts learn to keep up a stream of conversation however much it tires them but those who can’t or won’t tend to get labelled as shy, aloof or arrogant.

Rauch notes that female introverts have a harder time of it because people don’t usually think of women when you say ‘strong, silent type’.

But whatever their gender, introverts are almost always outnumbered in politics, a field where what you say appears less important than how you say it – and how often.

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda seems to be one of the few who have risen to the top.

I don’t have conclusive proof that he’s an introvert but I have my suspicions because whenever people try to describe him, the same words keep cropping up: undemonstrative, self-effacing, steady, grey.

According to an article in The Times last September, when a supporter encouraged him to ‘express his personality’, he said: ‘I have no personality.’

Of course he does. It’s just the kind of personality that’s at the other end of the spectrum from former boss Junichiro Koizumi’s.

Though I think anyone, not just an introvert, would have trouble competing with somebody who has a habit of breaking into Elvis impersonations.

But, writes Rauch, ‘If we introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place’.

I don’t know if this is true. But I do know that in a world run by introverts, no meeting would last over an hour because they don’t think by talking; they think by thinking.

And I know this because I’m an introvert too.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy conversations. In fact, I see them as one of the best ways to have fun with another person without taking your clothes off.

But I can’t have them all the time. In fact, I don’t have them a lot of the time, which prompted one friend to say: ‘You’re so quiet I sometimes forget you’re there.’

Ouch. Still, this could be useful if I ever decide to become a ninja. Or wallpaper.

By now, you should be able to work out on which side of the conversation gap you belong.

And if you’re an introvert, what can you do?

First, understand what you are – and look after what you are.

If you need time away from the maddening crowd, take it. Fighting this is like resenting your need for sleep.

Rauch also recommends helping extroverts to get comfortable with their opposites.

It can be hard to relax when silences keep breaking up a conversation. But not if you understand that ‘if someone is being quiet it doesn’t mean they’re having a bad time; it doesn’t mean they’re depressed; it doesn’t mean they’re lonely or need psychiatric help or medication’.

If you’re an extrovert, be confident that the introvert next to you is enjoying your company.

If he isn’t, don’t worry about it. It’s not like he’s going to tell you.

So, yes – I think it’s time to raise some awareness. Start by sending this post to 25 people within the next three days. Failure to do so will mean being trapped in 75 parties where people won’t stop talking at you.

But whether or not extroverts take any of this on board, introverts should be prepared to meet them halfway because we are, let’s face it, not the easiest lot in the world to live with.

Having once had to keep a dinner conversation going around someone who sat silent with his eyes down for hours, I can understand why extroverts get frustrated with us.

There are more ways to fit yourself into a conversation than by talking; you can do it by showing that you’re listening.

Just looking interested can take you as far as a well-placed witticism because who doesn’t like a bit of attention?

And if you’re not interested, well, that’s what the door is for.

But why should introverts have to go to such lengths, you may ask. Especially when extroverts don’t seem to bother?

Let me be clear about this: You don’t have to do anything, except maybe breathe. But what you do or don’t do will always have consequences.

The trick is to read far ahead enough to see those consequences, decide if you like them – and then act.

Come to think about it, you don’t even have to breathe if you don’t mind losing your vital signs.

But whatever you decide to do, I hope you’ll be happy with yourself. And from there, to be happy with others.

The story that gives me the most hope for introverts comes from the unlikeliest of sources: an article about how Japanese men express themselves in love.

Whatever their sterling qualities in other areas, the men of this country don’t have a good reputation when it comes to telling their partners how they feel.

So when The Japan Times reported last March on a magazine poll to find out which expressions they favoured in such situations, the howlers came as no surprise.

But the article ended with a housewife’s story about her husband, who said something unforgettable for the right reasons.

She said: ‘When we started going out together, he nervously blurted, “Mari-chan-tte, amari shaberanai na. Demo issho ni iru dake de, nani yattetemo tanoshii na! (Mari, you don’t talk much, do you? But just being with you makes whatever we do so much fun)”.’

Sometimes, you don’t need a lot of words to tell a story with a happy ending.


A shorter version of this post ran as a column in The Straits Times ( ) on Saturday. I'm reproducing it in its full length for various reasons but mostly to let the husband quoted in the last paragraph speak in his own words. The Japanese was left out of the published version but if you understand the language, you'll see the clumsy sweetness that doesn't quite make it into the translation.

Oh, and Rauch's article can be found at


I-Chun said...

I rather like being an introvert too. The only 'bad' thing about not being the sociable sort is risk for Alzheimer's... BTW, have you read this Feb 2012 piece by the TIME magazine Tokyo bureau chief 'The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)',9171,2105432,00.html?

I-Chun said...

The link to the TIME article is (without the question mark at the end):,9171,2105432,00.html