“Never assume that loud is strong and quiet is weak.” – Unknown
“Speak up, I can’t hear you.”
“Aren’t you going to smile?”
“Oh, you must be shy.”
As a child, I did this thing my parents called it “swallowing my smile.”
When someone I didn’t know looked at me, spoke to me, or tried to get me to engage, I’d look down and bite my lips. It was my way of coping with social anxiety, I suppose.
Looking down and biting my lips seemed safe. Engaging with strangers, even well-meaning ones, was scary. What if I said the wrong thing, or worse, couldn’t think of anything to say at all? What if I blushed? What if the other person thought I was strange? What if I had to repeat myself in order to be understood and then couldn’t remember what I said the first time?
At an early age, I came to the conclusion that being a quiet person wasn’t something to be proud of – that it was something I needed to ‘work on’ or ‘overcome’ to be a successful human being. I thought that being quiet was a defect, a quality that weakened my value as a person.
Modern culture often feels like a world that caters to the extrovert; to the one who shouts the loudest. Outgoing and loud over reserved and quiet in a duel. It can be tempting to think of those who are quiet or soft-spoken as weaker than that those who are loud and abrasive. The description of “good leader” is often in step with “charismatic extrovert.” I used to try and try and try to be louder and less reserved – for a great many years I thought, “to be loud and outgoing means to be good enough to be liked.” In the seventh grade I can clearly recall mustering up all of my courage and energy to engage in a conversation with one of the popular girls and she said, “oh, you’re kind of cool when you talk.”
In the professional realm, it’s easy to get sucked into thinking, “to verbally contribute in every meeting is the only way to make sure I’m seen as a good employee.” A manager I had once, years ago, pulled me aside a few weeks into a new job and asked if attending meetings where everyone was required to contribute verbally was too much for me to handle. In retrospect, it was a kind gesture, but at the time all I felt was shame.
I can’t pinpoint when exactly I came to the realization that gregarious doesn’t actually mean better, or when I settled in the place of acceptance that I’m never going to be a loud person (and that trying to be isn’t going to help anybody). But gradually I have come to that place, and in doing so, I have uncovered a bit more of the joy that can be present in life – the sort of joy that only shows up when I own my characteristics rather than being ashamed of them.
The world needs more quiet leadership. More listening. Less shouting and trying to be the one who gets the attention. Less trying to be something you are not just because culture says a certain way of being is desirable.
So, if you have ever been described as quiet, introverted, or perhaps even the dreaded “shy” – know that it’s okay to be those things. Know that your voice is needed, and that it can be heard in ways that come through without trying to be something you are not. Know that there is strength in softness. Know that while being assertive and speaking up can be important, you don’t have to shout and be at the front of the room all the time to make your voice heard. Know that you can make a positive difference in the world by being who you are right now.
When it feels right to push yourself outside of that much discussed “comfort zone” – do it. There’s room to grow and do hard things. But there’s also room to own what makes you who you are and to lean into the ways of being that suit you best. If being quiet and soft-spoken is who you are, don’t try to be loud. Use your strength in the quiet ways that work best. Because when you do, you’ll be stronger for it.
About the Author: Co-founder of 12 Tiny Things, Heidi Barr lives (quietly) in Minnesota with her family where they tend a large garden, explore nature, and do their best to live simply. Visit her at heidibarr.com