A time to be silent and a time to speak

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Lately, I have been rediscovering the wonderful things about being an introvert.

In our chattering and clattering local communities, extroversion has dominated not only the entertainment business (understandably, though unfortunately because I am more partial to the quieter, unexcitable BBC Hard Talk, Charlie Rose’s interviews and always calming NHK), but also politics, the academe and the broadsheets, to the consternation of intellectual experts who happen to be introverts.

But who can blame them? As theologian Richard Foster writes, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.” This also spills over to churches and parishes. People are attracted to extrovert speakers, who entertain more than exegete, and church musicians, who produce loud music to scare the wits out of introverts in the congregation.

Susan Cain, definitely not a household name, shared her story recently at TED Talk,  which resonated with many introverts, including myself. Her story began with a suitcase.

She narrated how, for her first summer camp, she filled her luggage with books, ready to enjoy long hours of reading, undisturbed, only to be told she needed to get out, be active and socialize. She became the author of the bestseller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”

Introverts do talk

It is not true that introverts do not talk.  They talk when they have something to say. In fact, they love to talk—much longer and, hopefully, deeper.

I love to converse with each guest in a cozy dinner, preferably at a round table, than attending grand banquets with long programs and the loudest amplifiers to drown out conversations. I love sharing ideas and feelings with people who can sit for two hours, without checking their cell phone or iPad every three minutes.

Perhaps this is why many introverts choose to teach in universities. They love to read and hold three-hour classes with graduate students who can match their own concentration skills.

Introverts are keen observers, reflective and imaginative. They can work independently and are sensitive listeners. They are drawn to deeper, spiritual and philosophical topics. They are not aloof, but they love to be alone, at times.

While extroverts get energy from people, introverts feel alive from within themselves. And, according to Carl Jung, while extrovert is single-layered in personality, the introvert wants to guard a private self against his public self (persona).

Introverts in school

In my many years of teaching, I have observed a common pattern that makes extroverts and introverts tick. On the first weeks of each semester, class discussions would be dominated by the most extroverted students. But after a few weeks, when papers have to be written, many of the best submissions would come from students who have been shy and reticent in class all this time. These papers are more thoughtful, creative and organized, while those of their gregarious classmates are, in fact, peppered with sound bites and fragmented ideas—lacking cohesiveness and insight, containing dangling sentences and grammatical errors that characterize oral speech.

Writing needs long chunks of quiet time.  Young students who cannot stay still for one task would find reading and writing a torture. Solving mathematics problems or doing science experiments also requires students to be quiet and alone, slowly figuring out the problem and to be persistent, not quitting too early.

It is no coincidence that the very sociable Filipinos do not fare very well in international science and math  tests.

So what do we say about cooperative learning? It has done real well following the dialectical constructivist view of learning as a matter of dialogue and collaboration. But many gifted students are not very excited because they feel they are wasting their time and energies on a task they can do by themselves.

But, as a professor who can empathize with introvert students, I always include as part of their course requirements a project that can only be accomplished as a group. It is good to allow introverts to work through their shyness and the extroverts to learn patience.

In class, “turn to your partner and share” is heard often throughout the semester. This allows the introvert a chance to talk and the extrovert, to listen.

Gregarious world

The world has more extroverts than introverts—at least 3 is to 1, the same ratio from quick surveys of my students. Yes, the world would be a boring, somber place if there are no chirping, perky, bubbly social butterflies.  But if everyone was an extrovert, the world would have missed many advances in arts and sciences.

According to Marti Laney, author of “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World,” 80 to 90 percent of writers are introverts. Gifted Development Center’s Linda Silverman posits that the percentage of introverts increases with IQ. This confirms the finding of psychologist H.J. Eysenck who reports that     introversion correlates with intelligence. However, in general, extroverts get better grades than introverts in elementary school, where teachers look for quick answers. This may reverse in high school and college where more and more higher-order thinking is required. Introverts would outperform extroverts.

Higher-order thinking demands long hours of intensive concentration that can only be achieved in the lonely laboratory or in front of a desolate desk.

The most famous introvert, Albert Einstein, did not invent the Theory of Relativity with a committee.  Nor did Isaac Newton for the Theory of Gravity, William Shakespeare for his sonnets, Ludwig van Beethoven for his sonatas, or the other Steve, Steve Wozniak, who invented Apple.

Extroverts have the tendency to talk too much but listen too little. They may be excited about a project at the start but may not stay for the long haul.  They also tend to be overwhelmingly persuasive. Sometimes they care too much to be liked, fearful to rock the boat such that tough issues remain undone.

Introverts as CEOs

People may think extroverts make better leaders and better salesmen. The book “Quiet” disagrees. Most of the performing companies of the 20th century were not run by flashy, charismatic CEOs but the quiet, focused introverts.

According to the study, extrovert leaders may be effective in leading passive followers, but when introverts lead, followers will take more initiative.

A recent meta-analysis (“The Big Five Personality Dimensions and Job Performance” by

Murray R. Barrick and

Michael K. Mount) of 35 studies involving 4,000 salesmen found no correlation between sales’ performance and extroversion.

It is high time we learn the ways of the introverts. They may not be expressive, but they are introspective. They do not tickle our funny bones, but will provoke our thinking.  They may not seem interesting at first impression, but they may have the most impressive thoughts.

It is not just the speed of thought that impresses us, but depth; not the number of words that counts, but the wisdom that results from reflective thinking.

Let’s give introverts more chances to excel and a bigger stage to share their thoughts in this attention-span deficit world.

In his book “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community … Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

The wisest king, Solomon, says in Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time for everything.” Verse 7 continues, “A time to be silent and a time to speak.” If only we all aim for this balance in life, enjoying the best of both silence and speech!

E-mail the author at grace@koo.org.

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