Friday, May 20, 2011

Be Quiet

The other day, I heard a professor say about a student:
"She is so quiet, I didn't think she was smart until she aced the first test in my class."
Here is what I would like people to say instead in these situations:
"She is so quiet, I didn't know she was smart until she aced the first test in my class."
quietnot smart

I don't mean to get all victim-y here about being quiet, but quiet people have historically been viewed with suspicion because it may not be obvious what we are thinking (plotting) and/or because we make loquacious people uncomfortable and/or because we may appear unfriendly or strange. Also, with more talkative people, you have a better idea of what's on their mind, and you can be reasonably confident that they are not about to go shoot up a shopping mall [1].

Just the other day, I was thinking about the (for me) related issues of being quiet and being really bad at random social chit-chat and, in fact, I had just told someone that I had great difficulty making coherent, normal, pleasant conversation about the weather. Very soon after that, I was on the phone with a Funding Agency Program Director who wanted to talk about the weather. I started to panic. I looked out the window: what was the weather and what could I possibly say about it? I made stuff up. I was very relieved when we moved on to talk about Science and Money.

I wrote about Being Quiet in 2008 (Does She Have Teeth?) and won't repeat the main points here. I just want to say, briefly and softly, the following:

- However difficult it is to make idle chit-chat about weather and sports, it is important to speak up when you have something to say. If you Google 'quiet people', you will easily find references to the fact that Clarence Thomas hasn't spoken in oral arguments in the Supreme Court in many years. I don't recommend that approach unless you are on a panel/committee that has no real purpose and with no real consequences for anyone.

- I was recently talking to an extremely quiet person, and I must admit (somewhat hypocritically) that I found it a chore. I kept asking myself "Was I ever that quiet?" Maybe I was. And if I was, what would I have liked the person talking to me to do about it? Just keep talking to fill the time allotted for our 'conversation', lapse into silence also, ask direct questions? I tried a combination of monologue and questions.

- My quietness was recently a pseudo-issue in a particular professional context, but it was swatted down when a colleague used my favorite pro-quiet defense: "Yes, she's quiet, but when she has something to say, she says it, and people listen." I would amend that to say that some people listen, sometimes, but I like this statement anyway because it makes quietness seem like an empowering characteristic.

[1] Wisdom, Conventional


Female Post-doc said...

I'm pretty skeptical of people who speak up too much! I am thinking of a particular student in particular with whom I work now. He "adds" to the conversation by saying random things in lab meeting that sound smart, so my PI thinks he's smart...even though he never reads the journal club papers and is close to a complete failure in lab.

a. b. said...

As a loquacious person, I will admit my uneasiness around quiet people. I feel like I come off as an oaf who has to fill all the silences. Truthfully, I often *do* have to fill the silences, because they aren't talking, then I feel crummy because I came off as a conversation hog. I know to realize that there's really no problem but me feeling insecure, but I do avoid hanging out with a quiet person if there is no one else to balance the conversation.

I've always wished I was quieter, and ran my mouth less, though. Of all the quiet people I've known, it seems consistent that the things they speak up on are well thought out and not frivolous. But I am what I am!

Who would think a non-talkative person wasn't smart? That is an odd conclusion.

earthquake said...

It seems to me that the point of a discussion is to communicate. Being too quiet or being stymied on some topics impedes communication. One can do fine on homework and tests without volubility, but extreme reticence is a handicap in a career in research.

Some talk too much, and I have fresh in my mind two painful examples from a meeting that I attended yesterday, but reluctance or inability to converse should be acknowledged as a shortcoming that one should strive to overcome.

John V said...

Last post was me, not from my wife.

Blogger shouldn't say "You will be asked to sign in after submitting your comment." when in fact one will not be asked, and the post will rather be attributed to the current login.

GMP said...

Who would think a non-talkative person wasn't smart?

This is also my thinking. It's the talkative people whose are perceived less smart than they are.
Perhaps because it's masculine to be solemn and taciturn, while loquaciousness is considered feminine.

But then again, with women, basically any outwardly apparent characteristic can be grounds for assuming they are not smart (talkative, quiet, pretty, ugly, blonde, brunette, tall, short,...)

Anonymous said...

"'Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt."

Abraham Lincoln

Anonymous said...

I think that the issue is that in a classroom situation, we depend on participation to provide evidence of students' understanding, at least until the first exam. If a student regularly (and intelligently) answers questions put to the class, then we know that s/he is mastering the material. If s/he makes insightful observations spontaneously, even better.

I wouldn't necessarily assume that a quiet student wasn't smart until proven otherwise. But it is generally the case that the students who do not understand the material (as indicated by their answers on written exams) are also the least likely to speak up in class.

-Principle Investigator

P.S. I teach at a SLAC, so class size is small, and participation is expected. I happen to be a very quiet person in groups, so it's probably a good thing that I attended a big R01 for undergrad and my grades were determined solely by my written exam scores.

BugDoc said...

"Who would think a non-talkative person wasn't smart? "

I have to admit that I am more (probably too much more) on the talkative side. I don't think necessarily people perceive a non-talkative person as not being smart, the problem is in that case that conversation provides no framework for evaluating them. This is really difficult when interviewing students for graduate school. Some of these students could be the smartest people in the world, but if I can only get monosyllables out of them, I worry that if they were a student in my lab, I would have to do all the communicating. IMO, success in science depends heavily on communication. You don't have to be loquacious to be successful, but you must be able to communicate effectively somehow (as FSP obviously does, even though she calls herself quiet).

Anonymous said...

extreme reticence is a handicap in a career in research.
Well, I'm an extremely quiet person who has managed to develop a pretty strong, collaborative program of research. I'd say that if you're doing high-quality work, people will eventually accept that you're just not going to say much while still contributing a lot. It does take time though.

I have to admit that I hadn't really thought about the fact that being quiet in conversation makes others feel like they have to work more until quite recently. That's the best incentive I've had to try to be less quiet.

Anonymous said...

Quietness can absolutely be empowering. I was quiet as a child, but learned to converse a bit through high school and after dating a couple high-quality schmoozers in college got the knack of talking to just about anyone. Now I am strategically chatty or quiet depending on circumstances. Quiet is often a good idea initially in new groups; when you're quiet you observe (and learn) more than if you're putting your own thoughts out there.

As for the weather. Here's a basic weather cheat sheet to get you started: (1) "The weather here is _____" (fill in: sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, hot, cold) (2) Compare today's weather with the past week or two's weather. For example: "It's so hot today, but it's been really nice the past two weeks" or "It's raining today, and it has been for five days straight!" (3) Give your opinion about either today's weather or how the weather's been recently. Try to be positive. For example: "I've really enjoyed the nice weather this past week, even though today's is crummy." or "I'm looking forward to the rain ending; we need it, but I'd really like to go for a bike ride." (4) Move the conversation to the other person. Ask how their weather is, if they haven't told you already. Or, if they have, you can use some news-worthy weather or related topic to redirect the conversation: "what do you think about those floods in Mississippi?" or "I heard the storms knocked out power all through New York. Do you know anyone there?"

I won't talk to you if you are boring said...

Umm. You forgot that 'ace exam' does not equal 'smart', either.

My biased view has it that it more likely that: quiet => not interested in much => won't be very high on any of my pedestals.

My suggestion for the idle chit-chat challenged is to find an interest in the weather or (this will be harder) sports. That is to say learn the science of weather!!. You can blow people away with your knowledge of that warm front moving in. Or, you can say that thunderhead looks to be about 10 km tall so we should be in for some pretty good rain, and a sound and light show. For those of the computational orientation you can show your pride by talking of the Lorenz equations.

Also, try practicing bringing the conversation to what you want to talk about. Here are a few ways to flow to your topics.
1) rain -> worms on the sidewalk -> nematodes -> your area
2) rain -> birds preening their feathers -> primates preening each other -> your hotel room

rain-> water -> beer
rain -> good thing we stopped acid rain -> do you have some acid?

rain -> rain falling -> first year mechanics
rain -> rain falling -> bloody complicated dynamics

rain-> not on my Linux machine!

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps because it's masculine to be solemn and taciturn, while loquaciousness is considered feminine."

I don't think this is the stereotype everywhere. My experience has been that the most talkative people in lab meetings tend to be male. I'm used to a few men in particular who seem to think it a privilege for others to hear their quarter-baked thoughts or repetitive summaries. I *don't* mean to imply that most men are like this, but the talkative outliers I know have all been men.

In professional conversations I care about, I tend to be on the quiet side. First, I'm the sort of person who needs a lot of time to mull things over, and second, I don't like interrupting other people's conversations if they seem to be learning something... even if I think that what they're saying is obvious or tangential. I speak only when I think I have something to add that would also benefit other people, and I always try to make sure I'm not trying to show off a little bit.

As for the weather, one exercise I have (it's great for certain kinds of parties) is to try to see how well I can bond with someone while exchanging no real content whatsoever. Some people seem deeply comforted by noise. I've no patience for that stuff at work, though.

For the Myers-Briggs aficionados, I'm INFJ, not INTJ.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

GMP--I don't think (at least in my field) that masculinity and taciturnity are thought of as associated nouns. Shy and female are.

When I hear a statement like "she's so quiet" I tend to imagine someone who is so painfully shy and withdrawn that it is obvious even to a lecturer in a large class. A student simply not saying something in class (unless it is a discussion based class) shouldn't necessarily mean anything.

A painfully shy male is more likely to be thought of as a geek, and his intelligence is less likely to be questioned. A painfully shy woman is more likely pitied, and many aspects of her personality are questioned.

Keith said...

The opening quote is almost exactly something I've said, but change "she" to "he".

In general, I teach smaller classes (8-25) and I count participation (not just attendance) in grading. I tell them up front that learning requires effort and communication on both our parts and to speak up if they don't understand something or want clarification, etc.

When students respond to my many questions, I get a sense of them by what they say. Or when they ask questions. I have zero evidence for the people that don't participate. If anything, there's a higher chance that a quiet person doesn't understand than does understand (in teaching undergrads anyway). So if they don't offer me any evidence, that's all I have to go on. Ultimately though, it doesn't affect their grades anyway; it only affects followup like recommendations or doing research with them.

That's not to say I like talkative people. The kids that won't shut up in the beginning of class are detrimental to the class' education overall. And like Female Post-doc said, the fakers are super annoying.

Anonymous said...

OMG, I am sooooo bad at social chit chat. Whenever I need to be "on" in that way, I just imitate charismatic people I've seen, whether on TV or in real life, even if I think it's silly. So far it's been working. :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think a 'template' for weather chit-chat is actually that useful. When someone starts talking about the weather, I suddenly freeze and don't remember what the weather is. Sometimes people who have spent the day inside will ask me if it's still raining or if it is hot/cold and I really have no idea, even though I was just outside. I don't know which is weirder: just guessing (and probably contradicting the last person they asked) or saying I don't know.

Anonymous said...

I have long been a quiet person, particularly in the classroom. At some point in a semester, I would usually give the professor evidence that I am highly intelligent, that I have been paying attention/reading/etc. and it would be a surprise to them.

I have often received the critique of needing to talk more - that it will help me and benefit the class as I clearly have insightful things to say. However, part of the reason that the 'clearly have insightful things to say' impression is the case is I wait until I have something worth saying before saying it. If you edited down all the junk that some talkative people toss out there just to fill the space, we may have the same amount of gems - mine just really stand out.

I have become much less quiet as a graduate student. I usually know something related to what we are discussing that isn't just a summary of what we have all read or am able to disagree with the research based on some knowledge of the field - I have something of substance to say much more often. But when I get tossed into a different situation, I get quiet again - I don't have much to say to a hairdresser, I just don't, which makes me dread my annual haircut (which is annual due to avoidance of the awkward social situation!) I can make a haircut awkward with a close family friend who cut my hair all through my childhood, its a 'gift.'

Anonymous said...

Someone above mentioned that people being too quiet can impede communication, and I agree. I have more difficulty relating to quiet people than loud ones like myself, because often I don't know if they are following what I am saying or just being polite. After working with several very quiet undergrads I'm getting better at it though.

I also have to say that the opposite is true. Someone being TOO loud and loquacious can impede communication, too. Often by interrupting, side-tracking the conversation, not letting the quieter person get a word in, etc. I have been guilty of this this and I am trying to be more aware of it and hopefully change, but it's a challenge! I suppose almost as much of a challenge as FSP talking about the weather (or, God forbid, sports) would be.

Anonymous said...

Both quiet/loquacious extremes are equally annoying for others to interact with. Science is an extremely interactive undertaking, and if you can't talk and listen to your colleagues, then you will have trouble succeeding. Speaking up in the classroom is similar. Everyone in class learns better when everyone participates equally.

I have a quiet grad student, and she is intellectually smarter than most of my other students. But she volunteers so little, that I have a hard time gauging her interest level in anything. And I'm starting to suspect that she in fact may NOT be that motivated. She is very good at everything she tries, but she doesn't participate in conversations unless prodded -- then she does have good points to make. But she should also initiate conversations if she wants to explore concepts. Maybe she isn't curious enough... and in science, often smart = curious.

GMP said...

Anon at 04:21 says:
... I'm starting to suspect that she in fact may NOT be that motivated. She is very good at everything she tries, but she doesn't participate in conversations unless prodded... Maybe she isn't curious enough... and in science, often smart = curious.

This is tangential to the post, but I felt I had to comment. I know three or four people like this; two of them I knew well in college. Whip smart, could do anything they put their mind to fairly effortlessly. But... Never really developed a passion, a real drive for anything. I don't know if that has anything to do with the fact that everything came so easily to them. None of these people achieved anything resembling even moderate academic success, certainly nothing close to what their intellectual capabilities would have allowed (at least from my perspective). For success in science, you have to be smart but you also absolutely must have passion and persistence. Without the latter two, being smart
doesn't really get you far...

Anonymous said...

People who are quiet in professional settings do themselves a disservice. How are you supposed to know if a person is smart, interested, or motivated if he or she sits there in silence for an entire meeting?

I was painfully shy when I entered graduate school. I am still shy in social settings. But I learned to talk in meetings, and the respect I received from others quadrupled -- as did the number of opportunities to collaborate.

Anonymous said...

"it's masculine to be solemn and taciturn, while loquaciousness is considered feminine. "

I've always thought the opposite - that the men monopolize the conversation (mostly to show off or one-up each other) while women are quiet and in the background

Anonymous said...

Unless the class is a seminar or participation is particularly important, I don't see what being quiet has to do with anything.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I've observed at faculty meetings that the talkative females usually get eyebrow raises and side comments, while the outspoken males get nods of approval.

Although I'm sure (I HOPE) this isn't universal, I wonder if others have witnessed this as well?

Anonymous said...

my husband is very talkative at home (I have a hard time keeping my attention on him when he goes into overdrive talking mode). But in social settings he's so quiet and shy (many times he doesn't say anything at all to anyone the entire evening) I have to make up for his quietness by talking more. He thinks I'm the opposite- very talkative and social with other people but not wanting to talk to him at home!

DrDoyenne said...

I'm a quiet person by nature, although I've learned to be more talkative in social situations and to speak up in professional settings.

However, I find it stressful and tiring to make chit-chat and to be around loquacious people who seem to assume that my quietness means that I'm: 1)a snob, 2) thinking bad thoughts about the other person or judging them, 3) not as smart as they are, or 4) plotting something.

It takes a lot of energy for someone who's an introvert to behave like an extrovert (just as talkative people find it difficult to just be quiet and let someone else talk). I then must take some "quiet time" by myself to recover (which is also misconstrued).

I'm constantly amazed at how I'm often characterized as being unsocial due to my quiet nature, despite always being exceedingly polite and a good listener.

Should quiet people have to change to conform to others' expectations? Should loquacious people have to alter their behavior? Maybe we could all just be more tolerant of differences.

cherish said...

I used to be chronically shy until I started hanging out with someone who was even more shy than I. When I realized how uncomfortable it made me to try to talk to someone who was afraid of talking, I realized I'd been doing that to people all along. I now find it easier to talk to people (primarily because I've learned the best way is to ask a lot of questions), but I also find that I love talking to shy people because it's obvious they think, often deeply, before saying anything. In most cases, it's simply a matter of finding a topic they're really interested in. Once you get there, they come out of their shell.

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks for reminding us to be experimentalists: think -vs- know.

The problem with quiet students is you can't tell if they are quietly lost or quietly answering each rhetorical question.

My favorite student type is one that gives a really quiet answer from the front row. I know she has it correct, but no one else does so they have to keep thinking.

One student was memorable for ALWAYS giving the wrong answer when a question was asked in class, but getting an A on every test. He learned from his mistakes, while some students who thought he was dumb learned nothing from his mistakes and failed the class. They only thought they knew what was going on.

Kylara7 said...

I second what DrDoyenne said. I am an introvert as well and tend towards quietness and lots of alone time, abhor small talk, and generally don't speak up unless I have something to say (I am also Finnish and we are very comfortable with long silences, unlike most North Americans). It IS exhausting to pretend to be an extrovert for a few hours at a social event because that is what is expected, but I do it because I know it is good for my career. I honestly am irritated by those who seem to carry out their stream-of-consciousness musings out loud...thinking through something by talking AT someone.

As a female, I am also ultra-aware that if I am too quiet, I will be perceived as a snob or a conniver. I contrast this with my partner who is a big quiet man who is VERY introvery (even more so than I), especially in social situations...but he is almost always perceived as a "deep","strong silent type" genius. He was shocked when I attended a work function of his and was quite quiet (preferring to listen to others talk about a completely different line of work that I was unfamiliar with) and he later heard through the grapevine that people thought I was "stuck up" and "too good to talk with them" was eye-opening for him that our same behaviors and personalities are perceived completely differently mostly due to gender.

Anonymous said...

I am a quiet female student from a culture that values humility and reticence. I have no problem with small group discussions, and I do participate in class. But in high stakes meetings or with large groups I have a hard time being heard. My silence isn't a sign of disinterest, nor dispassion, but rather of frustration from being spoken over and not heard.

Several times mentors have told me that I will never succeed in my field (an extremely male dominated science) unless I change my personality (become louder, speak stronger etc).

Do you think that it's true that quiet and reserved personalities will not succeed in a male dominated science?

Female Science Professor said...

It's not true; I was told the same thing when I was a student.

Anonymous said...

.. she doesn't participate in conversations unless prodded -- then she does have good points to make. But she should also initiate conversations if she wants to explore concepts. Maybe she isn't curious enough

This comment made me nervous. As a fairly quiet female, I do worry about coming off as not caring about a topic when I don't comment in a discussion. I'm sure I've occasionally been in conversations when I forget to convey that I have an interest in something it because I don't naturally blabber about it.

Very often, if pressed I could have something to comment(reminiscent of the grad student in comment) that I'd only volunteer if i've had a chance to think/read about it more. I *do* sometimes participate a lot, just not always, so i'm not on the far extreme.

The idea that being quiet or under-confident(which can be worked on) possibly comes off as lack of curiosity(a bigger problem) is disconcerting, because they're so different! Of course, I think it's important and plan to work on my science blabbering skills, especially to make sure that things i'm interested in come across as such (i'm just starting out as a grad student so I have time). But separately, I hope that people as mentors separate out quiet from not curious. I wonder it there are other traits the student has that the author is not mentioning, or if being quiet really seem to so strongly convey lack of enthusiasm.

Anonymous said...

to the Anon who asked : "Do you think that it's true that quiet and reserved personalities will not succeed in a male dominated science?"

Unfortunately I think that while it's possible to 'succeed' (define what level of success you are talking you mean just getting a job, or do you mean feeling 'happy' with all aspects of your job, or becoming famous in your field, having your own empire etc?), you will need more help. you will need more than ever to be liked by people who DO talk up your area of research and/or your skills and contributions.

academic science is competitive, there are far more extremely qualified people than there are positions. Among those who are extremely qualified, those who get heard and seen, are those who will get noticed by the ones who wield the power to hire and promote.

just my own opinion, of course.

Emily said...

Thank you so much for this. Although I can be very quiet in non-academic settings, participating in discussion-based classes has always been easy for me. But I've noticed that professors overestimate my ability based on how much I participate, and underestimate the ability of quieter friends who grew up in "children should be seen, but not heard" families and cultures. Some of my profs give alternative written assignments instead, but to me, that seems a bit like giving people extra work because of their personality or cultural background. When I become a professor, I don't want to make the same mistake. What's a good way to tell what a quiet person knows without punishing them for being that way?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Interesting topic. "Nothing chatters like an empty head" (Augustine?). I'm the quiet one in conversation (hence, boring). Lots of head-nodding and smiles to affirm the talker. Here's why:

1) Almost impossible to get a word in edgewise since the talker is usually in love with talking and is 'all about me'.

2) People are idiots to varying degrees. The more talkative one is, the less likely they are to acknowledge that fact. So naturally the treasure all their own opinions, most of which are inane blather.

3) Most talk is small talk - hence a waste of time. I'm interested in the universe at large and your understanding of it. Your relationship spiritually and what you read the other day re: physics or biology -NOT hearing about the yogurt you prefer or the damned weather.

4) The most obvious reason for quiet? Some folks have lots of energy to yuck it up while others tire out quickly and are introverted. Introverts perceive talkers as energy vampires. We quickly tire of these individuals and lose interest.

Now that was easy.