Do we talk too much? Maybe it’s the winter, or maybe it’s that I’m getting older and running out of earth-shattering experiences to talk about, but over the past few months I haven’t felt like talking very much. Memo to my loved ones and friends: it’s me, not you.
Seems I am in good company. The New York Times last weekend did a great story about how freelancers and sole-proprietor business owners often forget how to hold a phone conversation, since much of their communication is via email and text. And a new book on the best-seller list, “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, talks about how introverted people are less valued than the dynamic fast-talking extroverts, and automatically presumed to be less capable leaders. The adoration of extroverts came about when the U.S. switched from an agrarian society to one based on manufacturing, creating more goods to be sold — and hence, a need for more smooth-talking extroverts to sell them. Cain points out that today Harvard Business School encourages its students to be confident extroverts and persuasive talkers, even if the ideas they are promoting are only 55 percent developed. She also says that some of history’s most dynamic business leaders have been introverts rather than extroverts, but skilled at bringing out the best in others. And she says that introverts can still be sociable and have great conversations, but they just need lots of time to decompress afterwards. I’m reading that book now and it has been a revelation. I am starting to understand those friends and family members who just don’t like talking on the phone.
Have any of you ever wished that you didn’t have to talk so much? When I was growing up, quiet people were considered weird, depressed or difficult. It was difficult to row the boat the whole time with them. It was much cooler to be a good talker, to be spontaneous and “outgoing.” I think I knew in my heart that I was quiet and thoughtful but felt I needed to talk to have friends. And if I was around someone who didn’t want to talk – either because they were naturally shy or reserved, didn’t know me or didn’t want to know me – I’d feel panic. My response was to talk more to fill the void, often with bad results. I also talked because I felt that being vivacious and a “people person” would make me more lovable. The real me is actually more introspective and better at having a quiet and meaningful discussion with one good friend than a roomful of strangers.
Having to shift gears quickly from focusing on one person to focusing on another is challenging. This compulsive need to talk when I didn’t feel like it has led to much foot chewing after I invariably say the wrong thing. I think that is why I like to disappear into the kitchen or take pictures when at parties; it’s easier for me when I don’t have to talk. It is also why I went into writing, a profession that requires more listening and note-taking, and some thought before one communicates through the written rather than spoken word.
Maybe it’s OK to be a man, or woman, of fewer words. Just ask New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, master of the one-word answer. Or Bartleby the Scrivener, whose only conversation was “I prefer not to.” Or plenty of other legendary and literary figures who were the strong and silent type.
Still, I worry that a quieter me won’t have as many friends. Will my loved ones will be upset or think that I love them less if I don’t talk as much, when nothing could be farther from the truth? I also worry that being more introspective will cause me to brood too much; that maybe it’s healthier to get out there and engage with other people and put my inner life on the shelf.
A few weeks ago when my grown children were visiting for Christmas, we had some times when we would just sit silently on the couch and disappear into our Iphones. I felt bereft during those times and responsibility to fill the void. Had I lost my connection with them? Did their lives on the other side of the country and on another continent have a stronger gravitational pull on them? But the funny thing is…those connections crackled to life when we just went out and did something, without a need for constant talk. My daughter Rachel and I took a nine-mile hike around a nearby lake, and sometimes we talked and other times we didn’t. The I-Phone that drew much of her attention in the house became a GPS for helping us find our way around the trail. We had some great conversations when we were not busy concentrating on the trail and the scenery. I felt proud to be able to share this hike with her.
Maybe, whether one is an extrovert or an introvert, the key is less talking and more doing. What do you think?