A while ago I asked my Facebook followers what they thought was the best response when someone says that they are “too quiet” or “too serious” or “boring”. I have been on the receiving end of these types of comments several times in my life. Just as I suspected, many other introverts have endured similar critical remarks. And, just like me, they have been both surprised and hurt by these swift blows to the ego. This phenomenon of people being so openly critical of introverts deserves further exploration. The first question I’d like to address is why.
Why do people feel the need to tell introverts that they are too much or too little of anything? Of course, there are several reasons depending on the situation, but I have narrowed it down to three main motivators:
1. Guilt – A lot of people interpret our behavior as a sign that we are not having fun, not enjoying their company or not enjoying life. This makes them feel bad. They feel partly responsible for our behavior. Then, some sort of messed up chemical combustion occurs in their brains and their guilt translates into judgment.
In the blink of an eye, critical words roll off their tongues with surprising ease. These criticisms are often disguised as helpful observations. The person actually believes that they are doing us a service by pointing out our supposed flaws.
2. Ignorance – There are people out there who are incapable of seeing the world beyond their limited perspective. They believe that their way of thinking, behaving and having fun is the only way.
Because they are discontent when they are alone, they assume we are as well. They have trouble understanding the value of reflection and introspection because these are things that they rarely do. Because they are loudmouths, they can’t fathom why we would choose to be quiet.
Unlike the guilty critic, there are very few chemical combustions happening in an ignorant person’s brain. The thinking machine is on autopilot and the hamster is asleep.
3. Cultural Influence – This is the all-encompassing factor. Both the guilty and the ignorant are influenced by cultural norms. Depending on where you’re from, introversion still has varying degrees of stigma attached to it. Many cultures perpetuate the idea that quietness is a negative trait. Society worships the extrovert ideal and degrades introversion.
The United States, in particular, has become a party-going, high-fiving and fist-pumping sort of culture. If you don’t fit the mold, there must be something wrong with you. Critics who are influenced by their culture believe they are doing us (and society) a favor by singling us out. After all, we can’t have rogue personalities running amuck and challenging societal norms. No, no we can’t have that.
No matter what the underlying motivation is, the result of hurtful words is the same: they hurt. When people tell me I am too quiet or serious, what they are really saying is that who I am is not enough. And that does not feel good. As much as I try to brush these seemingly innocent comments off, I simply can’t. They are forever stored in my memory and dredged up every time someone else criticizes my behavior.
A Personal Story
The other week, two new ‘friends’ (we’ll call them Ben and Jerry) one close friend (Häagen-Dazs) and myself, went on a boat ride. It was my first trip down the charmed rivers of Xochimilco. Sunshine and mariachis accompanied us nearly everywhere we went. I was pleased with how the day unfolded
Before long, we found ourselves at Ben’s uncle’s house, which could be accessed from the river. A lazy Sunday barbeque with family and friends ensued. I was delighted to be invited to the cozy get together. But as the afternoon sun dipped beneath the horizon, the lazy Sunday barbecue morphed into a full-on Mexican fiesta. With every passing minute, people became louder and drunker.
They delighted in each other’s company. They laughed. They erupted in song. It had all the elements of a great party. Except that I was in no shape for such an event. Their enthusiasm peaked just as my energy levels dropped.
With no escape in sight, I tried to put on my invisibility cloak. But as the only Canadian in the throws of a Mexican fiesta, I couldn’t help but stand out. I might as well have been wearing a technicolor dream coat. I couldn’t run and I couldn’t hide. My fate was sealed.
About halfway through the drunken singing portion of the evening, Jerry asked me, “why are you so serious?” I tried to shrug it off, but he persisted. Later, he and Häagen-Dazs pulled me aside and the barrage of insults began: “I don’t like to see you like this, Michaela. You are not old, but you are acting so boring and serious.” The icing on the cake came later when he asked, “Do you agree that Canadians are cold people?” Hmmm …
I was lucky that I didn’t burst into tears right then and there. It took some effort not to let my emotions overtake me. I felt drained, wrung out and beaten down. To be honest, I was surprised that these kinds of comments still effect me so deeply. I figured that as a self-assured and self-aware woman, his words would roll off me like water off a duck’s back. But even now, as a grown woman and proud introvert revolutionist, words hurt me. They cut beneath the surface and leave scars.
How to Respond
So, how should we respond when people tell us that we are too much or too little of anything? The truth is that there is no simple answer to that question. We can build up our armor so it’s so thick that nothing (not even the good stuff) can get through. We can think up a witty response to be applied as needed. We can ignore or rebuff. We can return insult with insult. We can try to educate the ignorant.
I am a big fan of truth telling. As a matter of principle, I always strive to tell people the way they make me feel – especially if they made me feel badly. In the case of the fiesta on the river, I was ill-equipped to speak my truth. I knew that if I opened my mouth, tears would have poured out before any sensible sentences formed. Crying at a party full of drunken strangers was not something I wanted to do.
(By the way, during a similar experience, I actually did try to explain my introversion, and ended up crying in front of a group of near-strangers.)
So, the long answer to my own question is that there are several different answers, which may or may not work in certain situations. The short answer is not so much an answer as it is an eternal truth: You are enough. Just be.