Quiet, Yet Not Quiet

Photo by Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo of mime by Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I’m told that I was a quiet child. But I’m also told that I was a talkative child. Both are apparently true. This is a contradiction that has continued to this day and that I and others have often found confusing. It’s something that I have in the past found difficult to explain, including when I was in counseling, but I will try to break it down here.

Before I started school, I was a chatterbox. I had a cheerful, sing-song voice and a mild speech impediment (an inability to say the letter L) that adults apparently thought was adorable in a little girl. People called me a “Chatty Cathy” after a popular talking doll from the previous decade. My mom says she used to worry about me because I would go up to complete strangers and talk their ear off. I even once offered some random elderly man a lick of my ice cream cone, which he accepted.

After I started school, I stopped talking as much because of the way my peers responded to me. Adults had enjoyed my chatter, but other children tended to think I was weird and they didn’t understand the things I talked about. I soon learned that not everybody wanted me to talk to them. This made me retreat into my shell. And since I didn’t really understand how to play with the other kids, I was often on the sidelines, quietly observing them.

However, when I would hit it off with someone, I would have great one-on-one conversations with them.  I was still capable of being talkative, I was just far more cautious and selective because I had learned that I needed to be.

But even though I talked a lot, I was never noisy. This was one area where I really differed from other kids. I didn’t yell or scream or shriek the way they did. I used to hear other kids shrieking while playing and wonder why in the world they would want to make such horrible sounds. It’s something I just never, ever did.

There were also times when I wanted to say something and couldn’t. Like the time I was falsely accused of breaking a window and couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth to defend myself. Or like the time in grade 8 when for some reason our girls’ PE class was required to sit in the bleachers and watch boys play basketball. Our teacher was trying to teach us school spirit or something like that, and was telling us to cheer the boys on. I was usually very obedient to my teachers but unlike the other girls I could not bring myself to shout anything. She noticed and got right in my face and started yelling at me, telling me things I should shout, like “Go team” or whatever. I opened my mouth to do so and no sound came out. Selective mutism, I believe this is called, but at the time I had no clue what was going on. My teacher was angry, thinking I was deliberately being difficult, and I was ashamed.

On the other hand, even though I had trouble defending myself, injustice bothers me so much that I’ve never had any problem speaking up in defense of someone else. I have always felt compelled by my own conscience to verbally jump to the defense of anyone being falsely accused, criticized, or being treated unfairly. I have gotten myself in bad situations and incurred the wrath of bullies many times for doing this, both as a child and as an adult.

I still have a note from my grade 3 teacher that I’ve kept all these years, telling me how mature I was for speaking up in defense of another student. This was one of the same teachers who had labelled me socially and emotionally immature and had denied me the opportunity to skip grades, even though my academic performance warranted it. Obviously even she was confused, thinking I was both mature and immature.

Another unusual thing about me as a child was that even though I had crying meltdowns when overstimulated, I never had temper tantrums. I did not have an angry bone in my body. My mom often talks about how lucky she was compared to other moms because of this. If I saw something I wanted in a store, she could say no and I would accept it and carry on.

My odd combination of quiet yet not quiet confuses people to this day. At a family dinner a couple years ago, I was introduced to a new family member (new through marriage, that is) and really hit it off with her. We were sitting next to each other, and the acoustics in the restaurant were ideal enough that despite my usual auditory processing issues in group settings I was able to carry on a conversation with her. We were even laughing and joking, completely in tune with each other’s sense of humour. Suddenly another person present, the person who shall remain nameless, snapped at me, “And you say you’re so quiet!”

Suddenly, I came crashing down to earth. Having my behavior scrutinized and commented on throws me for a loop every time, and this particular person does it a lot. I didn’t know what to say. I felt that I should offer some kind of explanation, but I had none. For starters though, I could be wrong, but I don’t think I ever said I was quiet. That’s what other people say about me, not what I say about myself. I did tell this person once that I am an introvert, as a way to try to explain myself when this person was criticizing me for not yet having made any friends in the new city I’d moved to (trying to offer an explanation in that case was a mistake anyway; this person didn’t understand what I meant by “introvert” and started telling people after that that I “don’t mix well with others”), but I don’t think I ever used the word quiet.

Anyway, that one comment put a damper on my rare experience of carefree socializing with a new person. I went back into my proverbial shell, feeling paralyzed because of the scrutiny.

Perhaps it’s a topic for another post, but that’s one of the hardest things for me to endure: All the scrutiny I seem to attract.

People want to put other people into boxes, and in many ways, including being quiet but not quiet, I am difficult to categorize. This puts me into the position of feeling like I need to explain myself, but that rarely seems to turn out well.


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