I used to think I wasn’t smart. In college, while other kids raised their hands every five seconds, I preferred to sit through class without saying a word. But I was graded on verbal participation, and quickly learned that speaking was in no way optional.
I’m in grad school now, an environment that makes my quiet tendencies even more problematic. Sitting in silence during a 6-person seminar is awkward for all parties involved, and I’m always paranoid that people think I just didn’t do the reading.
To combat perceived unpreparedness, I force myself to speak. This is highly stress inducing and probably taking many years off my life. I can’t absorb and learn from the discussion, I have to craft a comment I couldn’t care less about. To do this, I mentally rehearse the thought about ten times before I’ll let myself say it out loud. And by the time I’m ready to speak, the conversation has shifted in a completely different direction.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but it seemed clear that something was. I should clarify that no, this isn’t a fear of public speaking. I have no problem reading in front of people and I acted through college. But everyone around me seemed like professional orators, capable of offering brilliantly impromptu insights with no trouble whatsoever. The only plausible explanation seemed to be that if I couldn’t open my mouth and let genius spontaneously flow forth, it must be due to some cerebral inadequacy on my end.
And then I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, and basically wanted to bow down and kiss her feet when she writes, “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
When I have to talk off the cuff in front of people, I’m overstimulated, which means I’m mentally wrangling a lot of thoughts and impressions: nerves, concerns about wording my thoughts, anticipating people’s responses, pressure to contribute something meaningful, attempts to recall what I just “memorized,” etc. Susan explains that overstimulation interferes with short-term memory, which explains why, in these situations, I can barely remember my own name, let alone the nuances of what I have to say.
I take a long time to think before I speak, and I express myself much better through writing. I do not learn by verbalizing my ideas, I learn by listening and reflecting.
But these qualities are problematic in our extrovert-ideal culture (what Susan calls “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”) Talkative people are considered smarter and more charismatic than their quieter counterparts, and fast talkers are perceived as more competent than slow ones. So it’s no wonder I’ve been led to believe that if I can’t up and speak extemporaneously and persuasively, this must be some brainpower shortage that I’m somehow responsible for.
I understand why much of higher education is structured this way. But if our extrovert-ideal culture is sending the powerful message that talkativeness and spontaneous eloquence are huge indicators of intelligence, isn’t this a limited way of measuring competency, given humanity’s vast range of personalities and strengths? How much anxiety are we inducing in when we force everybody to verbally contribute to prove their knowledge? How guilty are we making people feel about their learning style—a quality they have zero control over?
When it comes to expressing myself, I prefer to speak in fully formed thoughts. But, spoiler alert: these take me more than a few seconds to develop. That being said, I’ll be working on this kind of speaking for the rest of my life, because it’s what our academic, social, and work cultures demand.
The difference is now I don’t let the way my brain and personality work affect my self worth as a student and as a person. All I can do is accept that certain situations are difficult for me, do what I can to make them easier, and decompress with a bowl of ice cream when I’ve survived.