Thursday, September 04, 2008

Does She Have Teeth?

Thanks to all who left nice comments on the post yesterday about science blogs vs. academic culture blogs. I still feel like I don't understand why, given the number of science blogs in existence, some people think that this particular blog should have more scientific content. Does it mean this blog is less rigorous? Scientists should write about Science? And so on.

But today I want to talk about something else. I recently encountered an extremely talkative colleague, and this conversation, combined with an event during my summer visit to the ancestral home, made me think about the issue of Talkativeness.

During my visit to the home of my youth, my father made a brief appearance and gave me a photocopy of a page of notes he took at Parents’ Night at my school when I was in 9th grade.

The only time that parents met teachers was during an evening at the school, typically in the late fall or early winter, after we’d been in school for months. On this one night, parents went to the school en masse (and sans kids) to walk the halls of the school, gaze at our desks, and meet the teachers. Parents talked for a few minutes with each teacher while other parents milled about nearby, waiting their turn.

I don’t know for sure of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if no other parent took notes at these events. (background info/abridged history of my father’s career: Navy → seminary/ministry → engineering). He had already morphed into an engineer when he took the notes in a little pocket notebook, no doubt using one of the many pens he carries around in his front pocket.

Here is what my father wrote down about me during one of these meet-and-greet events with my teachers in 9th grade:

SCIENCE, 97%: Good work. Gets along with other kids. Doesn’t talk much. Doesn’t appear to be afraid of teacher. Will answer direct questions.

ENGLISH, 99%: Very quiet. Highest grade. Excellent writing. Doesn’t talk much to teacher. Talks to friends.

In 7th or 8th grade, a teacher asked my parents: “Does she have teeth?”, wondering if my reluctance to speak in class related to a dire dental problem.

Seeing these notes reminded me of just how annoying it was that everyone focused so much on my quietness, assuming it was unhealthy. I loved school, I had friends, and I was involved in numerous activities (school sports team, school newspaper etc.). If a teacher initiated a conversation with me, I had no trouble conversing.

I was quiet, but (in my opinion) not in a dysfunctional way. In the opinion of my teachers, however, I was too quiet. I know this from what my parents told my teachers, as duly recorded by my father in his notes, and I know it because my teachers used to try to bring me "out of my shell", a phrase I have always loathed. The attempts typically involved public humiliation, and I found them counterproductive.

My youthful experiences as a quiet person taught me a few things:

- Many people assume that quiet people are stupid and/or disturbed. Quiet people are not necessarily stupid or disturbed; they may be or they may not be, just like people who talk easily and/or a lot. The lack of correlation between intelligence and talkativeness has been important to remember during my experiences teaching and advising, especially in classes that require student participation or when advising a quiet/shy student in a research project.

- As long as someone can communicate at some level, there is no need for extraordinary measures to make them talk more. Humiliation is not a good method for encouraging a student (or anyone) to talk more.

- People who are quiet are not necessarily bad teachers or bad speakers. There may be no correlation between ability to speak in social settings and ability to speak to a class or professional audience. I have always enjoyed public speaking, even during my most intensely shy years. In contrast, some very outgoing people may be terrified of public speaking.

- Being quiet/shy as a child may actually be good preparation for later life, contrary to what teachers, parents, and others typically assume. I think it made me somewhat stubborn, or at least reinforced that trait. In my youth, I preferred to be quiet -- it felt right to me, and didn't seem like something that needed radical alteration. Over the years, I've been told that I needed to change things about myself to succeed -- my personality (not aggressive enough), my appearance (not old/serious/tall/well-dressed enough), my voice (too soft, too female) etc., but I always felt that I could succeed by working hard, caring about my work, and being smart enough.

I have learned that it's OK to be quiet and/or shy, as long as the shyness is not so extreme as to make all human interaction painful and difficult.

Something else I (re)learned on my recent trip to the ancestral home:

- My mother married a man who is even more strange than the men her sisters married, and this gives me pause.

A colleague recently told me that my posts have been rather long lately, so I will stop here for now, but I have more to write (but not say aloud) about this topic.


The_Myth said...

On behalf of quiet people everywhere, thank you for eloquently expressing why we are just fine the way we are!

Anonymous said...

It bites (sorry, couldn't resist) that women are deemed not "good" enough in many areas (like you say, old, aggressive, quiet quals) - I get the same crap.

I was told by my students that Mendel must have been a genius because his pea plant experiments were near perfect ratios for the expected ratios. I told them (all UG women) that scientists are not geniuses by nature (as in high GREs and IQs --> scientist)... we are tenacious and we seem to find what we love to do and make careers out of it. My fellow prof chimed in that it's because scientists are anti-social, loners, and have nothing better to do than obsess about science which is the vicious cycle of (mad) scientists!?! The only thing I could squeak out of my stunned mouth for reply was "speak for yourself."

There are soooo many qualities that make great scientists - considering the dumbasses around me, IQ certainly isn't at the top of my scienciness list. My students seem to underestimate the value of hard work and determination in favor of natural "smarts."

Anonymous said...

There may be no correlation between ability to speak in social settings and ability to speak to a class or professional audience.

I agree with you. I am a female engineering postdoc at a Large Research University in Europe. I love talking about my work (when asked) and give good talks; but I find it difficult to initiate a conversation in social settings. I would happily carry on a conversation initiated by the other person though!

I have a couple of work-related observations to make:

1) Being habitually quiet made it difficult for me to ask questions in class when I was a student, and later, to ask questions in talks.
2) Much of the networking in conferences happens over the meals/other free times. I have often wondered whether a habitually talkative person feels more comfortable approaching someone to ask about their work.

Might I take this opportunity to say that I enjoy reading your blog and loved reading your book Academeology?

Professor in Training said...

Wow - this post described both me and my personality/educational achievements perfectly. And my dad also keeps things from every waking moment of my life - he still has every single book I had in elementary school and will bring them out at random when I'm visiting ... incredibly embarrassing when there are friends/family present!

Jay said...

I am the opposite of quiet and have always been told I'm too talkative, too aggressive and too loud. I always envied the people who were naturally quiet and self-possessed (my daughter is like this) but recently I have heard from several other people about experiences like yours.

There's a narrow range of "OK" for girls and women.

The Bear Maiden said...

I call people like us "watchers". My niece is a watcher. When she was in 3rd grade, her "coming out of her shell" was a such a big deal... she'd been "quiet" for so long, it actually was a note on her report card.

But I don't think she's quiet... get her going and you get an earful. Same with me. I prefer to be quiet in most situations. You learn an awful lot that way... if you're busy talking you're not busy listening.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this piece. My older daughter could be described by the notes your father took, and I must admit to worrying about it. This is despite the fact that I was shy in a different way in school, but those memories have faded. I worry that my daughters shyness is hampering her happiness, and then am astounded to see how happy she is when with her friends and out of my direct presence, or to hear from one of her teachers that she speaks out forcefully in class on certain topics.

Each person has to find their own way, and trying to shape our kids into a mold in which we feel comfortable doesn't work. However, as a parent its hard to remember this sometimes, as we wish so forcefully for happiness for all of our kids.

EliRabett said...

John Fleck has a slot in his blogroll called metascience, for folk who write about the practice of science rather than the science.

A couple of things in passing. The fun a parent teacher night was not looking at the parents standing around, but watching them fit into the small desks the children sat in. Also, the teacher who asked about your teeth was doing a good job. Dental care (and fluoridation) was not nearly as good and a lot of children had major problems.

Anonymous said...

I have a student who is shy, but also not a native speaker. I have been trying to make him talk more - not because I need him to be less shy, but because he needs to practice English - particularly "science-speak." I try not to humiliate him, of course, but he is also from an Asian country where saving face is very important, so humiliation comes very easily to him, when it would not be humiliating to an American student.

FSP, you are so helpful. Do you have any helpful words to help me work with my student? Are there techniques that you have developed to communicate with non-English speakers? Particulary very shy ones. Sometimes our communication is so bad that I am worried he won't be able to get a PHD.

Kristin said...

It's funny that you mentioned that shy people can be good at public speaking. I am painfully shy in social settings, but I have no problem teaching (I'm another female science professor). In fact, once, when trying to get a class of students to talk to me during class, I mentioned that I am the shyest person I know. They laughed - apparently they couldn't picture me as being shy!

Pagan Topologist said...

This is interesting. I myself seem to have two different modes, so to speak. Some days I am very talkative and other days I am quiet and introspective. I suppose I think it is good to be versatile here in this regard. I have never tried to figure out what sorts of situations trigger the different modes of action.

iGollum said...

I had a somewhat similar experience, except with slightly more immediate consequences: I was made to redo the first year of elementary school because I "wasn't sociable enough" (at the time they told me a fib about not being old enough because I was born in November). Not that I was acting antisocially; no, I was just too quiet and not interacting enough with kids in my peer group. Well, I liked to sit in a corner and read. Definitely something wrong with me ;-)
When we moved back to Belgium (the above was in the US, where we lived for 3 years) my parents got me to skip the third year of elementary school in order to put me back "on schedule" with my age group. Academically it was an easy adjustment. Socially, I was still as shy a bookworm as ever. But the teachers wouldn't hold me back for that there; no, they were just happy to have one less noisy kid to deal with. I didn't mind but my parents were a bit shocked by the lack of caring when at PT night they asked how I was doing, whether I was adjusting okay, and the teacher just said "oh yeah she's fine, she just sits there and doesn't say anything, it's great". They transferred me to another school the next year, which turned out to be a good move because there the teachers were much more engaging. I didn't really talk more but I'm told that I looked much more "alive", whatever that might mean.
Now I'm still very quiet around groups of people, but I do love to give talks at meetings!

Anonymous said...

I loved this post!! I have always been "quiet" - I've later found out I've been perceived so at almost every grade and stage of my life. I think quietness/shyness is something that can make academic science just a wee bit harder, especially when you enter grad school and encounter loud hotshot types, who may or may not know what they're talking about.

I can be shy and quiet, but this isn't to say that I'm not extremely social with my friends, or a talkative member of lab groups, or an engaging teacher. I'm just kind of quiet when I'm meeting new people or adjusting to a new situation. I like to think it that I'm a careful observer and then careful with my words. And I can be a chatterbox once you know me.

I have found that people who are shy can also be perceived as aloof or snooty, in addition to stupid or non-participatory.

Sometimes I think that people who never have phases or moments of shyness or quietness really don't understand it and I think they don't know what to do with it. I like to cut new students who are quiet or shy some slack and give them a chance to come out of their shells - some of them will.

Anonymous said...

I second your opinion. I was very shy during my school/college days, but when I started teaching, the other side of my personality opened up which I didn't know. I turned out to be a wonderful teacher; loved and respected by my students. Still, I think I am not over talkative in normal setting, but completely switches on when I have to give a seminar or teach a class.

Anonymous said...

This resonated so much with me. I think part of the quietness for me as well relates to how I process information. I need to do some thinking and reflecting before I really feel ready to talk, as opposed to others who do their thinking by talking.

When I learned, as a young adult, how to distinguish between

"I'm not talking because I am not ready to yet"


"I am not talking because I am feeling self-conscious and shy"

it was like a huge weight came off my shoulders. I can refuse to let myself get away with staying quiet because of shyness, and I don't feel that guilt or pressure to talk when I know that I'm not ready.

I've always found it interesting that a lot of people out there will say things like "she doesn't contribute as much as others but when she does [insert positive thing here]" and then turn around and say "she should talk more" - they clearly don't realize that the main reason they like what I say is the same reason why they will never get very much of it.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the main issues is most people who become school teachers (esp elementary and middle school teachers) are going to be crazy-outgoing types. You kind of have to be in order to retain control of a group of children. These people are much more likely to find shy children "strange" and outgoing children "normal". Obviously there are exceptions but I would say this is generally the case.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I was painfully shy at school and would never talk in class, except to answer a direct question (mainly thanks to the great British tradition of bullying the smart kids - I learned to keep my head down PDQ).

However once I reached University I came completely out of my shell and people now have a hard time getting me to shut up. I just tell them I have a lot of catching up to do.

Anonymous said...

the flip side is if one talks too much, especially when nervous. I'm generally quiet, but tend to say too much (and regret some of it) if nervous...

Anonymous said...

I can completely relate. I have always been quiet and kept to myself around most people, especially in new situations. However, I am very outgoing in front of a group, teaching and public speaking.

I agree with another commenter that more often I feel as though I am percieved as snobby and uptight because I don't say much. I am grateful that you have posted about this, you have definitely written my sentiments very well.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, for me it was different. I was very quiet, but most people thought I was studious because of it. And I almost never did work in high school.

Anonymous said...

It is ok to be quiet, but there are limits. I was off giving a seminar at another institution yesterday, and one of the faculty members I met with spoke so quietly I could barely even hear what the fuck he was saying. He was describing his research in a motherfucking whisper, and kept pausing endlessly, as if to muster up the energy to produce another sentence. By the end of the discussion, I literally wanted to kill him.

Short Geologist said...

I had a similar experience to FSP. I have always been an "observer" and I am truly not antisocial, but I have always preferred to focus on other people (people are fascinating!) and then only make contributions when I had something really good to say. This makes me seem very "deep", which is nice.

But I want to correct a misperception that I've seen in several comments. Many teachers may not appreciate very quiet girls, but they also do not appreciate very boisterous boys. My male SO had real problems in elementary school because he was an early blooming (huge relative to other kids), gregarious, hyperactive kid.

Doctor Pion said...

I was thinking about the advantages of that 99% in english, which indicated an ability to write clearly and easily - a skill that is extremely important in academia.

Better to be able to write loudly and at length, fluently describing your work, than to talk at length but struggle to produce papers.

Anonymous said...

I used to get phone calls - typically sometime in December or January - to announce (with great excitement) that my youngest daughter had finally talked in school!!!! To the TEACHER!!!!

kid never shuts up at home - but she was a ~little~ slow to warm up at school.

Still tends towards very quiet at first ...but she's made it through college and graduated in spite of serious learning disabilities. I am very proud of her.

Anonymous said...

What Anne-Marie commented totally resonated with me - I definitely feel that I need processing time before I'm ready to speak. And sometimes I need a lot of processing time, but then I have good contributions. I wonder if the quietness isn't always shyness but instead is a form of processing information. Most people fall more on the "active" rather than the "reflective" end of the learning spectrum, but perhaps more scientists are reflective learners?

This personality trait actually leads me to HATE conference calls. I hate having to be brilliant on the spot. :)

Anonymous said...

extending anne-marie and anonymous at 9/05/2008 11:13:00 PM's comments--

I once heard a speaker tell the audience that women, in general, process information as a whole rather than as unrelated pieces so it takes a few minutes. (Ever notice how men often pick out some small trivial bit to focus on?) The way to get women to ask questions is to wait for 5 minutes after the talk before you take questions, which the speaker proceeded to demonstrate.

I was amazed -- I'd never seen the women in that group get a chance to ask questions before (except me.)

butterflywings said...

Another thank you for this post.

I have always been perceived as quiet. I can be extremely talkative with people I know well, close friends and family, though, but I tend to hold back more in new situations/ with people I don't know.
I also *hate hate hate* public speaking. Well, no, I feel proud of myself when I do it, but I don't enjoy it.

I also hate when people assume being quiet means I am somehow dysfunctional, or a weak person (I am neither, and can be *very* stubborn!) It really confuses people, because I am young and female and quite "feminine" and quiet, so they think they can walk over me and just can't compute it when they learn they can't ;-)

Anne-marie - in particular, a lot of that resonated with me, in fact, I was in the same situation.
A work colleague recently said to me that I was too quiet, but what I did say was "very insightful and intelligent" so I should say more.
Well, duh - because I think before I speak!
I too like to consider things carefully. I am reflective, and for that reason often find it hard when I'm asked for an opinion or contribution when I don't feel prepared as I haven't had enough time to think.
As you say, he is also someone who thinks aloud.
I was brought up not to interrupt, and I think often women are socialised to be good listeners - so feel rude when I do - but realised that he wouldn't think it was rude at all, and in fact, often just rambled for the sake of it!
We work well together now, because he will ramble on and I tune it out (which I don't do easily, but have learned to do) and just think to myself.
I am now trying not to be embarrassed to say "can you give me more time to think about this" etc., and also to think through what might be said in meetings in advance, in detail, so I feel prepared.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Like FSP said in the original post, people should not necessarily change - just work with them.

Also agree with the first anonymous, it's not about ability, often, but hard work.

Unknown said...

Ah, this is totally me. *female science phd student* One of the other students in my lab is a total extrovert. If he wants to understand something better, he will talk it over, at great length. So if he want to know something about my work, he will question endlessly and make me talk it over and over, which is not how my brain works. I'm 100% an introvert so I do most of my thinking in my brain and most of my thoughts come out fully formed. I also much prefer to watch and listen in social groups. You can learn so much that way.

As for the public speaking aspect, despite being quite introverted, I can hold my own in front of a relatively large audience in a way that more "outgoing" folk couldn't.

Anonymous said...

in my humble experience, people who are quiet are often viewed as intelligent and rather lofty.

perhaps those of us who talk a lot give-away much? also, when someone's quiet, there's more space for others to project all sorts of qualities onto them.

maybe this is a cultural difference (i'm in the UK)?

differences between extroverts and introverts are interesting - i'm the latter, but can find it very refreshing to spend time with the long as i have quiet time afterwards to reflect/recover :-)

butterflywings said...

migratingfishswim - I'm from the UK too...I dunno. I think it depends on the person.
I find myself projecting things onto people who are quiet too. So I think that is true.
I have to say I think a lot of how quietness is perceived depends on how the person otherwise comes across. And often, men who are quiet are as you say assumed to be thoughtful, reflective, deep, intelligent. Not so women, especially those who come across as even slightly "feminine"/ "girlie". It doesn't compute, somehow - women are meant to be accessible and if we aren't, it's not assumed that we are just reflective, but that there must be either not a lot going on in their head, or something wrong with them.
Most annoying.

butterflywings said...

And, like jay said. There is a fine line women tread between "too quiet" and "too aggressive".

Anonymous said...

i was too quiet as a child too. i was asked once if i could actually speak. Which was odd. Teachers constantly took my grade down for not talking in class but punished the kids who would. I too, would talk to a teacher if she initiated a conversation but i would find it pointless to talk in class.


Anonymous said...

A female graduate student here....this post and comments are just what I needed. Thanks!