Navigating the Quiet

I was recently in a small conversation with four or five colleagues when a big question was posed. I immediately began to think about my response, possible items that I might want to include, ways that I might phrase my thoughts, possibilities for misinterpretations, and in the midst of all of this, the questioner turned to me and suggested, “Emma, how about you go ahead and get us started.” I laughed, uncomfortably, and knew that I was just going to have jump in and go for it. To the speaker’s credit, she did graciously laugh and recognize, “You are an introvert, aren’t you? I have a knack for putting introverts on the spot.”

 

Since the release and success of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, I have experienced a noticeable change and nuance in the ways that my professors, colleagues, and peers think about introversion.

 

As we move into an extended season of social gatherings, end-of-term celebrations, and conferences I am never quite as aware of my introversion - not in a negative light, but more so because it takes a little more self awareness to ensure that I am taking care to find reprieve in the midst of all the noise - even when it’s exciting, joy-filled noise. And, the more that I embrace this part of me, rather than focusing on those who do not seem to ever stop or need time to themselves, I am able to connect with others without internally thinking about how tired I feel or how much I would rather be home and give my complete effort to new adventures. I am confident that I am not alone in managing this balance. When going into new settings or environments, such as a conference, I try to keep the following items in mind -

 

Aim for depth. Small talk makes me physically uncomfortable. Of course, there are always going to be situations that necessitate a version of small talk. Over time I have acquired skills and habits that I rely upon situationally and I just try to hang on if I must. That said, if I am going to make the emotional expenditure to engage, I want to talk about what book or podcast recently transformed how you think about a topic, what new adventure you recently went on, or a dream that has always been high up on your list. For many, this can appear to be an intrusion or an overstep; something that comes with time and relationship building.

 

Susan Cain encourages introverts (though I think that this would apply to almost all individuals) to “stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns” (173). When trying to build relationships and establish a sense of community, I strive to remember this and stay true what feels most natural, especially if this means avoiding small talk.

 

It’s okay to pause. I have a wonderfully large and vibrant family. When I go to visit, I am reminded of just how quiet my home space is by comparison. There is always a moment in the midst of children playing and my siblings telling stories and other stimuli when I have to step back. Typically I say something innocuous along the lines of, “I am going to go grab a sweatshirt” and instead find a room where I can close the door and reset for a few minutes.

 

This is not much different in my professional life either. On days where I can anticipate more meetings than normal or events where I will be networking and engaging, I plan to wake up a little earlier to read or have some quiet time to myself. These are also the days where I may leave some buffer time in between commitments to take a walk around campus while listening to a podcast or close my office door for a bit. By striving for balance and keeping a close eye on my calendar, I find that I am more intentional about engaging with colleagues before the start of a meeting or in times when I know that I can be fully present and engaged. If taking time to yourself helps you get back to your center, take those moments and pause and in that way, you can ensure that you will be able to contribute and connect with others in meaningful ways.

 

Don’t get stuck. Cary Grant, describing how he transformed himself into the person and performer for which he became so famous, wrote, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” I include this with the caveat that I am not a proponent for pretending at the expense of authenticity. However, on the days when I am overwhelmed or feeling low on energy, those are the days that I am most likely to retreat from community, though I would likely benefit the most from it. On those days, I make it a point to reach out, even if only for a few minutes, and catch up with a friend or colleague. To do this, sometimes I have to pretend a little - I pull upon the image of the person that I want to be and trust that that image and my truest self eventually meet somewhere in the process.  

 

Even if I have to pretend a little, I try to not let myself get stuck in solitude too often. It is easy to fall into habits and patterns of staying in when I could be finding an adventure, catching up with a friend, or finishing one more of those work projects that seem to never end. There is a fine balance, in my experience, in knowing when I will benefit from time alone to recharge and when I am just falling back on a pattern.

 

Put yourself in the right lighting. Susan Cain reminds individuals to put yourself in “the right lighting” and to thrive there. By putting yourself in environments where you are most comfortable and doing work about which you are most passionate, others will see you thriving and honor that.

 

In my experience, being an introvert has meant that building a community of professional and personal relationships takes a little longer than it seems to for others and often requires intentional efforts. I admire those for whom this is not the case. That said, I know that I take immense joy in the relationships that I have and work diligently to maintain them. And, ultimately, I try not to dwell too much on my introversion. As with so many tools, labels, and theories, it is merely one more way by which I am able to understand myself and what I need to be the best colleague, friend, and community member that I can be. Let’s pursue the right lighting and thrive in that.

 

Emma L. Larkins in the Coordinator of Student Affairs Research, Evaluation, and Planning at Oregon State University. She can be reached via email at Emma.Larkins@oregonstate.edu

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