Some of us need to learn how to shut up. Others need to learn how to speak up. Which one are you?
Were you the kid in class who immediately shot up her arm when the teacher asked the question? “Pick me me me me!”
In American preschool, kindergarten and elementary schools, this is a common sight. Children, often uninhibited, clamoring for the teacher’s attention, wanting to share what they know. Often uninhibited, they don't know when to shut up.
And then there’s those times when the teacher chooses a child who has nothing to say. He stumbles. Ever been that guy?
Somewhere Along the Spectrum
We know the world is full of people all along the introvert–extrovert spectrum. And it is indeed a spectrum. Even the most diehard introvert longs to be heard in the proper context, and the most demonstrative extrovert has moments of introversion.
Where do You Fall on this Spectrum?
Here’s a quick LifeHack Test gauge where you fall if you don’t have a good sense of the answer yet.
An Extrovert who Needs a Regular Refill
I am high on the extrovert end. In general, people energize me. I might feel as if I don’t want to have contact with anyone, but that appointment on my calendar I cannot break means I have to go face others. I’ll go to that meeting or gathering. Before I know it, I’m engaged and have left my introverted self behind.
Or, at least it used to be that way.
Now I’ve learned in order to maintain that response, I need to build in plenty of “non-people-time” to build up my reserves.
I frequently go on walks or hikes on my own. I find them to be tremendous energizers not only for my body, but for my mind and spirit, too. It’s like putting gasoline in the tank (or plugging your electric car into the socket) so that you can go the distance with others.
Back to the Classroom
Yes, I was that kid. The one who piped up. And, most of the time, I’d spout out an answer. Sometimes it was right, sometimes not. Learn through failure. I didn't yet know how to shut up.
Moving into adulthood, I encountered people along all parts of this introversion–extroversion spectrum. This has forced me to learn some new habits. Sometimes that learning has been brutal.
It was hard to be told I talk too much. Chided because I said something so incorrect. Instructed to give others a chance to speak. Told to my face I was arrogant and insensitive. For awhile, I threw a pity party. But then I realized – those voices were right.
I guess we are always in a classroom. That “Life” classroom helps us grow to be more aware of ourselves and others. For me, this was revelatory.
Applied to Other Cultures
My earliest longer stints living overseas were in Japan. Now, it’s no secret that Japan would not be considered, on the whole, a nation of extroverts. My experiences in Japan have been some of the best teachers for me in terms of learning how to value space, observation, quiet and composure.
So many of the aesthetics in Japanese culture revolve around observing, being sensitive to and intuiting others.
The Japanese expression, 空気を読む, kuuki wo yomu, means to literally “read the air” or read the situation or sense the mood. It is often used to describe a person who can (or cannot) figure things out.
Another expression, 腹芸, haragei – literally, “the art of the stomach,” refers to the value of expressing oneself without words or gestures. Gut-to-gut talk, so to speak. It is the idea of one person intuiting what another person is feeling or needs.
Oh, how I learned so much from my experiences in Japan and learning the Japanese language!
Those experiences, combined with working for over 20 years with international students, have sharpened so many of my rough edges.
I finally learned how to shut up. You might say it's a bit of an art for a born extrovert. But it's been so critical to my development because, learning how to listen well is also an art.
I'm still working on both.
The Bottom Line
I still have to remind myself to give space to others (to speak up, to share their ideas, to contribute). And I try to do that on a regular basis. I’m still far from perfect in this area, of course! There’s always room to grow.
I find that holding back – at least for awhile – is a way to honor the thoughts and contributions of others. To give them space to share their ideas. If someone doesn’t speak up, it doesn’t mean they lack opinions on a subject. It simply may mean they are more reserved, more introspective, struggling to put their ideas out there in (this case) English.
Learning to shut up and let others speak (and then weigh my words well when I do) has been one of the best lessons I’ve learned in my life!
How does this resonate with you?