In some professional environments, it is not enough to show up and say good morning. You must mean your good morning; you must smile; you must say clever things to make the clients laugh; you are expected to participate in conversations when you’d rather keep your head down and work. If you meet these expectations, you’ll be making the cut, but you won’t always be considered above average.
I have found that, as a collective, we are becoming increasingly sensitive to vibration. It bothers us a little more than it used to when the cashier at the grocery store seems aloof or when someone, even a total stranger, acts out their frustration on us. We do our best to brush it off when this happens. “I know I shouldn’t let it upset me,” we say, as we continue to be upset. This was my experience at the arts and crafts store recently, when an employee gave me a gruff answer and vaguely pointed off in the distance in response to me asking where the sketch pads were. “Hello!” I said cheerily first, and my smile faded as she looked at me as though I had just spoken to her in a foreign language, her expression a mixture of confusion and annoyance that said: “Get to the point.” It took me a while to shake off those few seconds, and yet I could understand the factors that may have driven her to answer me the way she did. I understand not having a smile readily available. I understand, perhaps more than the average introvert, not wanting to interact with another human being in certain moments.
I have found that, if I am genuinely at peace in my environment, it is easier to smile or seem sincere when doing so. (If I were running my own business, I would certainly drop the expectation of being a silent worker bee.) Even if I am reasonably content, I still go through my days and moods where it is easier to say as little as possible and focus on my tasks. When I am in a sad or worried mood, for example, this is soothing to me – focusing on what I can control, one item at a time, while releasing worry about what I need to be or do for others beyond the scope of my job and the sake of professionalism. Writing holds such a draw for me because, for a writer, it is acceptable to be wound in deep, existential thoughts and to spend a great deal of time alone.
Sometimes, I long for the days when I could show up to work and speak minimally without being thought rude, cold, or impersonal. I have always had a good work ethic, and that used to be enough. People used to praise me for my silence or tell me that it was calming to them. Someone I knew in Los Angeles told me, “I like it that you don’t feel the need to fill every second with talking. It’s comforting.”
I remember riding in the car with my dad as a teenager. He was often away from home, so when I had the chance to see him, I had saved up in my head all the things I wanted to tell him or show him when I saw him again. I tended to talk his ear off when I was with him. As an adult, I am more like my dad – quiet, unassuming. I remember asking him back then, “Why don’t you say much when we’re together?” He told me, “Sometimes it’s just about being together, not talking.” That has always stuck with me. Now I love to just be with people.
Before that experience, I used to associate silence with getting the silent treatment or a similar punishment. Silence was meant to say: “I’m pissed at you.” My dad made me realize it could mean: “I’m calm and content in your presence.” It could mean: “I love you.” I understand where people are coming from when they interpret silence negatively, but I say all this to make the point that our minds do not need to go there by default. If a silence is negative, perhaps we can focus on compassion for the person (or for ourselves) instead of thinking about what should be different or feeling irritated at the other. Giving the other person space can help them too, perhaps more than you realize.
Some people enjoy confiding in others about their problems, but I don’t. There are a very select few I will turn to when I have something deeply troubling (or exciting) on my mind. When what I feel is too deep to be shared, or I am incapable of communicating it properly, comfortable silence is extremely healing for me. When someone can feel me out and understand that I don’t want to talk in a certain moment, I consider them golden. I trust that. When people are not looking to needle what is going on inside my head or expecting something of me, it creates the effect of me wishing to open up to them more.
I have never liked to talk for the sake of filling the void, even as a child. I mentally stored items to tell people that I connected with and felt excited to connect with them when those opportunities came up. But at church, school, or around strangers, I kept my answers to the point. As a little girl, if someone said, “That’s a pretty dress you’re wearing!” I said only, “Thank you.” I meant my words but did not feel as though I needed to do anything further to deserve the compliment or please the person who gave it. I did not feel the need to chat about the store where the dress came from or give them a compliment in return. Many children, I have noticed, are like this – and that is what is so refreshing about them. They do not fill the air with pretense or feel the need to be anyone other than who they are.
We do not put the same expectations on children that we put on adults. Expectations can stunt growth, while openness and acceptance can help others to blossom. When I can tell that someone is resisting something about me, I feel reluctant to change it. We all resist certain behaviors and vibrations to some degree; we cannot always help how we feel. In those cases, it is better to be upfront without being accusatory about feelings in hopes of helping the other person (but not forcing them) to understand us.
For those of us who believe in comfortable silences, or prefer silence for working and thinking, interacting with the rest of the world can be a struggle. It is a challenge not to seem aloof. It gets tiring to be so aware of what others feel, even to the point of codependence. There are some that say the label “introvert” is just a hall pass for being an “asshole,” but this is not practicing compassion or cultivating a sense of understanding for the inner worlds of others. I have moments where I feel physically tired after having certain conversations. Everyone carries a different energetic vibration – some are uplifting, and others aren’t. Not everyone is as sensitive to these vibrations, or even if they can pick up on the mood of the person, they don’t necessarily take it on or feel exhausted after dealing with them. Sometimes I need a nap after being around good energy – my talking stamina eventually wears out, even if I am with someone I love very much.
It has taken me quite some time to write this entire blog, which brings me to another point. For us strong and silent types, it does not always come naturally to put the workings of our minds into words. Sensitivity creates an entirely new language within the soul of a person – this language is highly individualized and difficult to teach to another. Every now and again, you may encounter a person with the same inner language as you, but chances are that you will not need language to communicate with them, only intention, perhaps your eyes and your touch. Talking will be an option, but it will likely not be your preferred method of communicating the most important concepts. When you have a soul bond like this with someone, treasure it. Just be, together, as often as you can.
To close, I will leave you with the concept of Yugen. Yugen is a Japanese word, and it means: “An awareness of the Universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.” It is the sort of experience in which words fall short and cannot do it justice. I have many of these moments in my life, and they have been occurring with greater frequency and synchronicity since I have started to notice them.
“To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds…” – Yugen as described by Zeami
The increase of Yugen in my life has resulted in less talking. Of course, I still understand the need for pleasantries and small talk. My inner and outer worlds have not yet fully aligned, so these things are necessary. Sometimes I sacrifice my authenticity for keeping up appearances. I do not do what I want to do to avoid angering or upsetting others.
I do not think of myself as the aforementioned hall pass “asshole,” but I do hope that my words can help those who may find trouble being compassionate toward those who do not meet their expectations in social or professional settings. Many of us strong and silent types are here to make the world a better place, but we can be held back by the unkind images that people hold of us.
My cup is overflowing with compassion and understanding, the kind that can only come from true non-judgment.
But in order to give it, I need it from you, too.