by Ajaita Saini
“Honestly, as much as I love you, I thought you were a bitch when I first met you. You tend to give off the I-don’t-want-to-talk-to-you vibe.” This was coming from my best friend, and I wondered how many other people had the same impression of me. Yeah, okay, maybe I do come off as uninterested. But I’m just not gifted at the art of meandering conversation that oozes at school dances and parties, and neither can I pull it off.
When you’re quiet (or refuse to smile profusely), people automatically assume that something’s wrong. If you’re a girl, there’s a general pressure to be quieter than boys, because that’s what the approach is at school and in a workplace. Eventually, it ends up making it more difficult for us to speak up at all. It’s not just at social events where this occurs; our school and work environments are set up in a way that encourage extroversion in order to make us into “ideal” students or colleagues rather than someone who’d rather work alone. We’re expected to become extroverts in order to be seen, heard, and considered successful. But it doesn’t have to be that way
At a parent teacher night in third grade, I was suggested to join a leadership program because I didn’t participate enough in class. The program was supposed to instill leadership in young girls by presenting news reports that would be taped in a mock news session. (I remember thinking about how reading off cue cards was a really stupid attempt to shape me into a leader.) The program didn’t work (obviously), and I was still “stuck” as a quiet girl who didn’t participate in class. In fact, the entire experience made me a lot more self-conscious. I didn’t think that my quietness was a problem, but my teachers made it sound like a defect in my personality. Even now, as a sophomore in high school, my teachers favor the ones who talk constantly–meanwhile I’m always seen as the weakest link.
Of course, that begs the question: how can shier, quieter girls become leaders? And honestly, it’s a really tough question to answer–but maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Leadership isn’t always about being able to publicly speak, it’s about being passionate about something and trying to cause a change.
Many of our significant figures in world history have claimed to be introverts. Eleanor Roosevelt gave a speech on human rights in France, to thousands of French citizens and United Nations delegates. Rosa Parks helped lead the civil rights movement in the US. And recently, Emma Watson gave a momentous speech highlighting feminism through her “He For She” Initiative. And despite the fact that each one of them was soft-spoken, they used those soft-spoken voices and took the role of a leader in order to do what they believed was right.
Although noteworthy examples, even these perpetuate the stereotypical ideas of leadership where being a leader means standing at the podium, but leadership comes in many different forms. Personally, I strongly believe in advocating girls in STEM, and I work to educate others about girls’ potential through girl scouts and SPARK. Even though I’ve never gotten behind a podium and spoke to hundreds of people, I’m spreading my ideas in a different way.
It’s difficult for me to get involved and participate as an activist, especially when I’m a true believer in something. A lot of times I end up showing my “activist” side by sitting in the back of the room and nodding to the person who’s actually speaking their mind. And yet I always WANT to prove to others that I’m an activist and a feminist. The stereotypical notion is that activists are the ones who jump up in front of the crowd and state their beliefs to anyone who’s listening. And even though there are people like that, I’m not. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have beliefs or ideas about how to spark change in the world, and that certainly doesn’t make me any less a feminist. It feels odd knowing that I’m part of an organization that advocates activism, but it made me realize that activism doesn’t solely rely on public speaking. I learned that I can express myself through other mediums, including my writing and my art, which send much more valuable messages than anything I’d be forced to say.
Being an introvert doesn’t always mean you stay quiet. It doesn’t mean that you’re shy, you don’t make jokes, you don’t speak up. It’s about cherishing what’s been said. We can only thrive if we’re allowed to be who we are, not how we’re expected to be. Because as much as there’s a need for extroverts in this world, there’s a need for introverts as well. If there was rain all the time, the world would be flooded. If there were sun all the time, the world would burn. If everyone was the same, the world would be boring and lifeless, because there is life in diversity. As a whole, we should be open to value some silence, because silence is a space for contemplation and imagination.