I have a wonderful friend Helen Walne, we are linked by many things: brothers, back steps, inappropriate pub behaviour, but most of all the quietness of our friendship, we really do not need to talk about it, or to each other, very much to know that it is simply there.
This is one of her recent newspaper columns
WE DON'T NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN - OR ANYTHING ELSE
I am writing this quietly. If I could, I would be typing in mute and the letters would be the colour of smoke.
Next door, children are shouting. They have a new foofie slide in the garden. A wooden platform on the boundary wall now overlooks our compost heap and I am worried they will see the dog poos we throw in and will catch sleeping sickness from the flies that rise like dirty baubles from the sticks and stones.
I worry quite a lot. I got it from my mother, who worries about her windows and her feet and the washing. But recently I have stopped worrying about one thing: being quiet.
It came as a surprise – this permission granted so suddenly. On a long-haul flight – admittedly with one eye on an Adam Sandler movie – I started reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet. In it, she investigates the merits of being an introvert in a world that favours extroverts and details the difference between the two types.
Introverts are most comfortable when they are alone, and they find it difficult to make small-talk. Extroverts feel adrift in their own company and make easy light conversation. They are often the loudest in class and the most exuberant at parties. Introverts often blush and suffer from social anxiety. Many are sensitive to over-stimulation.
Bam! There I am!
Those who know me will disagree. They will shake their heads and cackle and point to the fact that I make donkey noises and am fond of wearing red with pink. They will accuse me of eating moon flowers again.
However, what these kind and persistent people don’t know is how much effort this carnival requires; how much I would prefer to be in the quiet of home, with farting dogs, a pile of books and at least 30 fingers of shortbread.
Venturing out to a party or an exhibition or a concert or a dinner or a launch or a braai or a gathering of knitters (okay, that last one would scare anyone) fills me with dread and anxiety. It is physically impossible for me to make small-talk: the weather, what others are wearing, who’s shagging who, what’s the best insurance plan. I worry then what I will say, and get terrified when someone approaches. Then I blush and say something inappropriate, usually involving toilets, crotches or comic strips about willies. Sometimes I spill wine.
If I can, I leave early. After two hours, I am tired. A large group of people feels so pointless. Once home, however, everything falls into place. Bats bleep in the trees, a distant siren rescues someone, the neighbour’s electric fence snaps and growls. This is good. This is quiet.
The sickest I have been in my life came after two years abroad. For 24 months, I put on a carnival – I was outgoing, affable and noisy in new languages. I had a job which required lipstick and skirts. However, at the end of it all, during a visit to Paris, my carnival fell apart. The beauty of the city – all that gold, the people, the heat, the gilded bridges – overwhelmed me, and all I could do was sit on a bench for three days, drinking milk from a bottle and shielding my eyes from the sun.
Being an introvert means being in good company: Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, JK Rowling. Cain argues that before the 20th century, we lived in what historians called a “culture of character”, where morality and integrity were valued above all else. Then, with the rise of business and the move to cities, people began to ask how they could stand out from the crowd. Dale Carnegie loomed large, with his emphasis on being a total wally, and so the “culture of personality” was born. And we all began talking loudly, got blogs and started playing bongo drums.
For those of us who have been chastised for needing too few, being in our heads and watching from the sidelines, the good news Cain brings is that it’s okay to be us. It’s okay to walk alone in the woods, marvelling at birds knitting the air with twigs. It’s okay to turn down invitations to networking functions where the dress code is loud and the music is a clamour of sibilant voices. It’s okay to return home after a night out and silently thank the bats. And it’s right that we quietly take our place in the world, and talk with purpose without fear of being drowned out.
I am thinking of starting an introverts club. It will consist of no more than six people and meetings will be held remotely, preferably by SMS. If you are interested, send a small and aesthetically pleasing smoke signal, or a note sent by ant which reads: I won’t stay for dessert, not because I’m on diet or have a baby to return to, but because I know I won’t want to.