Family introvert doesn’t have to shout to be heard

“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” is a compelling read. Author Susan Cain argues passionately for valuing introverts, a segment of the population that has been sidelined for too long. With impressive research to back her claims, Cain presents evidence of society’s view of introversion as being less desireable and less worthy. She explores the far-reaching effects of the “extrovert ideal” over the last century and how it shows up in business and relationships.

I’ve read the book and had the privilege of hearing her share some of the key concepts in person a couple months ago at a leadership conference. Her pearls of quiet wisdom were many, but this statement really landed for me: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

I was thinking about the differences between introverts and extroverts in the context of my family recently. It’s Sunday night dinner with the extended family, and I am enjoying watching my son Graeme interact with this clutch of gabbers. It’s a family of extroverts, but for three exceptions: husband Steve, one of my nieces and Graeme. Steve copes with the cacophony and conversation by being a genial host, topping up wine glasses and occasionally injecting his perfect dry wit into the various topics of the night. My niece usually opts out of family gatherings altogether. Image 7

Graeme engages in the conversation as only a great listener can. Fully invested in the chatter, he tracks the volleys of conversation with his ears and eyes, laughing heartily at the silliness (usually flowing from my brother-in-law’s mouth) and the puns and groaners (usually spilling from his brother’s lips). Graeme is a minimalist: he shortens “ok” – which is already an abbreviation – to “k”. Despite his quiet demeanor, Graeme’s presence is heard.

Cain notes that for introverts, “it’s not that there is no small talk… it’s that it comes not at the beginning of conversations but at the end… sensitive people enjoy small talk only after they have gone deep.”

He’s the most un-corporate guy you’ll ever meet. While I stay warm and dry indoors, he considers running outside with garden shears a small price to pay for not having to sit behind a desk, make small talk and go to boring meetings. [Put that way, he’s got a point.] Graeme works with a landscaping crew all day. They travel together between work sites, then each tackles their assigned jobs separately. Gray usually wears earbuds as he works, and I asked him once what music he listened to. “It’s only music sometimes,” he responded. “I usually download books and listen to them.”

Explains Cain, “I have such a strong inner life that I’m never bored and only occasionally lonely. No matter what mayhem is happening around me, I know I can always turn inward.”

As Graeme leans forward to put a glass on the table, his shirt lifts slightly with the movement. I catch a glimpse of green, a teaser of his latest tattoo.

Twenty-five years ago in a TV interview, Barbara Walters famously asked Katherine Hepburn, “If you could be a tree, which one would you be?” The actual interview didn’t go down exactly like that (during the interview, Hepburn commented, “sometimes I think I’m just an old tree”, to which Walters asked, “what kind of a tree?”) but the flakier version of the question persists.

I’ve never asked Graeme that question, but he answered it with his new body art: he etched an arbutus tree on his trunk. His fecund creativity takes root on his left hip bone and blooms impressively over his ribcage almost up to his armpit. He has taken Adam’s one strategically-placed fig leaf to full foliage.

Image Graeme said he chose the arbutus because he respects its ability to survive on rock cliffs, where there’s little nourishment and constant exposure to storms. When I’m feeling generous, I describe his latest tattoo as “imaginative”. When I’m feeling peeved and honest, I describe it as “a stain on my Picasso” – my genetic masterpiece marred.

[The upside to his new body art is that the “roots” of the tat-tree obliterate the first tattoo he etched into his groin when he was 17: the word “Paranoid”. I’m thankful for small mercies.]

Our family’s introvert is a source of mystery and occasional frustration. He covets his alone, thinking time, recharging his batteries with introspection. It’s tempting to interpret that emotional distance as indifference by those of us who crave more frequent verbal connections. But, I value what Graeme brings to the table – dinner or otherwise.  I have come to more deeply appreciate that while some of us express ourselves with words, others use paintbrushes and clay. Some dance, take pictures or play the guitar. Some people are noisy about it all, some are quiet – most of us fall somewhere along a continuum.

As for Graeme, his voice is heard. Introversion isn’t something that needs to be cured. And that I can shout confidently from the highest arbutus tree.


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