I recently had my end of rotation assessment and my supervisor mentioned that I was ‘quietly spoken’. It is euphemism for ‘too quiet’ and the equivalent of a child’s report card saying “Heng Khuen needs to stop playing with his imaginary friends. He is, after all, nineteen years old.’
It is not the first time that I have heard this said about me and it baffles me every time I hear it.
I wonder how on Earth I could be mistaken for The Silence of the Lambs, when growing up, I have always been The Thing That Wouldn’t Shut Up.
I remember in Sunday School one day, a kid, frustrated with all my smart-alec interjections and disruption of the class, just yelled out “Shut up lah, Heng Khuen!” to my utter embarrassment and the secret glee of my exasperated Sunday School teachers. This was me, the guy who couldn’t wait to show people how smart he was.
So what’s changed? How have I come to be perceived as the quiet introverted guy?
I used to think that the extroverts were the loud ones, the life of the party, the Type A personalities while the introverts were the quiet ones, the wallflowers, the librarians. But a good friend rightly pointed out that that definition confused him – he had seen his share of social introverts and reserved extroverts.
A more helpful definition, then, of whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, is by the way they recharge – extroverts tend to recharge in the presence of others while introverts recharge alone.
I think that there are many features which suggest that I am an introvert then – most of the activities I engage in to recharge myself nowadays, I tend to do alone.
(Mind out of the gutter, please).
I jog – which is a solitary exercise, I play the guitar, but not in a band – in the quiet of my own home, to my audience of one (my wife, who is still waiting for her refund); I read (internet>books>>>textbooks), I write, I even watch movies alone nowadays. My thought life has never been richer, and all my imaginary friends agree.
I remember taking a personality test when I was eighteen – and Myers-Briggs tells me that I scored somewhere between an extrovert and an introvert. I was a little surprised by the result, I had always thought myself a lot more extroverted – I find myself recharged in the company of like-minded people, hearing their stories, sharing laughter and deep, meaningful conversations and seeking to be the source of laughter and stories myself. I hated the thought of being alone for too long, and I remember a period of my life where I had felt so alone it was a physical pain thus I vowed never to be found without the company of a friend.
But the older I get, the more I have changed.
Perhaps the passage of life shapes us to become more introverted naturally. We grow older (and some of us grow up), we no longer have the large family that was our school friends or college mates – all the promises that we would be friends-for-life have fallen along the wayside when time and different paths separate us.
Moving overseas for work or studying meant that you lost your roots and well-established connections, and had to write new histories with new friends. Being married means you now have to learn to protect ‘us’ as well. Throw kids into the mix and you have a right recipe for more and more isolation.
What is confusing then is the workplace. The workplace celebrates the extroverts – the ones who stand out by the strength seen in voicing their opinions or ideas, the team workers, the natural leaders. Small talk and the ability to weave your way around a conversation is an important skill while silence and the seeming lack of interest in someone’s weekend is mistaken for anti-social behaviour or extreme politeness/rudeness. The extroverts are the ones who gain prominence and rise through the ranks quickly while the introverts continue about their work in their own quiet, diligent way, unnoticed.
I sometimes wonder whether it is a fault of our upbringing – in Malaysian schools we were always very deferential to authority and hierarchy, and it requires a period of adjustment for us to talk to our seniors and superiors as if they were our friends or equals. You were always reminded to keep quiet in class, follow rules and exams celebrated rote memorisation and application rather than innovative thinking or a creative spirit or class participation.
I am still scratching my head over that one, I guess – I’d like to think that I am generally friendly and talkative at the workplace, but perhaps I seem to emanate a quiet brooding spirit too.
Perhaps I am old before my time. Or perhaps I have finally grown comfortable with who I am and have learnt to love my own company. Maybe I am no longer the awkward person I was once, seeking my validation from being perceived as popular, funny or clever.
Maybe the reason I am quietly spoken nowadays sometimes is because the only person that I’m learning to listen to me, is me.