From the moment I could read, I became an introvert. The worlds I visited, the characters I got to know, the meditative and silent state I fell into – they fed my inner world. The questions that I sought to answer by reading more, by thinking and questioning, helped me to make sense of the world. In some ways, I was an extroverted child; I played with many people, I had moments of loudness and overwhelming excitement – but I always returned to and felt nourished by moments of silence, playing on my own or reading. My parents’ attempts to get me to put a book down at social gatherings would often end in frustration.
How much did being a deaf child contribute to this desire to stick my nose in a book? It may have contributed in some way, especially as I reached the awkward pre-teen ages, and my hearing dropped. I became much more reliant on lip-reading and hearing aids, even more so than I previously had, which was tiring and sometimes I just didn’t want to put the work in – hearing banter leapt from one topic to another and the context was often missed. As a pre-teen, you tend not to be that interested in the world of adults anyway.
I remember with kindness the anxious and self-conscious teenager I became. Going to secondary school (high school) for me was fraught with all kinds of issues, especially as I became an ‘other’ – defined by my deafness and how visible it was. Being a teenager is hard enough, when you are exploring your own identity and place; but to be so visible, primarily because of your ‘otherness’ can be the worst kind of torture, especially for an introvert. If you don’t seek the eyes of others or hate to be in the centre of things, it can be hard to reclaim your own identity.
You become someone who fights an internal battle between what you think people see, and what you want to be – and then, who you actually are. I developed a persona – one that may have appeared prickly and snobbish to those who didn’t know me well. I didn’t speak much. Yet inside I was thinking furiously and observing.
I was also coping with the fear that comes with being both shy (a fear of social judgement that is more common with extroverts) and worrying about how my voice sounded to people – was it a ‘deaf voice’ (nothing wrong with this) or was it too quiet? It didn’t help that people had drawn my attention to my voice – as it was a quiet voice, one that didn’t suit speaking up in a classroom. An introvert voice: one that hadn’t quite been allowed to develop its strength yet.
My strengths lay in writing, thinking and my internal life. So much of school was extroverted – speaking up in class, working in groups, not having the space to think or formulate answers independently. It relied on a kind of pantomime, being an actor – an extrovert actor. It was interesting then, that when the yearbook for our last year of school came out, people had voted me as the most likely person to become a bookworm.
It was news to me that anyone had noticed how often I read quietly in corners rather than socialising; that they had noticed something other than my deafness. I realised then that perhaps I had allowed my shyness and the fears projected on me by others (that I have a quiet voice, that I had to act extroverted, to be more confident) to stop me from finding people who were also introverts.
In the book I’m reading at the moment, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie A. Helgoe, it puts these things into context. Western society values extroversion more than introversion. Introversion in an extrovert society is defined by lack. So for example, instead of thinking of introversion as being about deep thought, the power of solitude, deep friendships, observing – it is labelled as reclusiveness, an inability to connect to people; people who are boring and have nothing to say.
So it is no wonder then that many introverts have bought into this and act extroverted. Even if inside, they have a quiet, thoughtful and pensive introvert who needs to recharge with solitude.
‘For the introvert, conversation can be a very limited forum for self-expression. When a song moves you, a writer “gets” you, or a theory enlightens you— you and its creator are connecting in a realm beyond sight or speech. Not all of these expressions come from introverts, nor does every introvert’s idea reach a wider audience. But connecting through the contents of the mind is the introvert’s way.’ – Laurie A. Helgoe.
Solitude is equated with loneliness in an extrovert society – instead of viewing solitude as a way to connect with ourselves and our deepest thoughts, it is viewed as meaning we are sad and dislike company (or ‘sad loners’…). So during my school years, I didn’t recognise many of the people who were introverts because so many acted extroverted, or at least some of the time, even if it left people feeling exhausted and disconnected from themselves.
Yes, I was exhausted from lipreading and reading notes when I got home from school each evening, but also exhausted from holding up a shield around myself, feeling that I had to act like somebody I wasn’t (prickly and standoffish): and I was often frustrated with myself and how I couldn’t just ‘be myself’.
It has taken me many years to understand and come to here – where I accept and understand myself as an introvert. In deaf gatherings, I find it just as difficult as in hearing gatherings, because there is a pressure to be open and social. Whilst I strive to be an open person, it doesn’t translate to telling people everything about myself the moment I meet them, which is often how an encounter within the Deaf community begins. At the same time, I dislike small talk in hearing company (gossip, talking about the surface of things): I want to know what you feel about this, what your passions are, what your philosophy is. Yet, as with most introverts, I hate being put on the spot. We need space to think about our answers to things.
I have, on more than one occasion, felt awkward in overly social gatherings, whether deaf or hearing, because people view my quietness with suspicion or discomfort. In a deaf situation, my quietness comes across as either being a hearing person, or as boredom: and the surprise when I say I’m deaf can make me shrink even more into my quietness. Most of the time, I’m just listening, watching and observing, the cogs of my brain clicking away and thinking of a possible response. I know there are a lot of deaf introverts – there must be, because at least half of the UK population are introverts (the same for the US).
So where is the balance? I’m comfortable writing about my thoughts and feelings on a blog – but there are always things that people hold back. There are always things you only share with your closest friends and family. The internet has been an incredible space for introverts – we are all equal in the eyes of electronic communication. It is also amazing for deaf writers and vloggers – we can express ourselves visually and in writing without people making judgements. Reading people’s thoughts mean that you are entering a dialogue with them – we can leave comments after thinking about our responses. It is the ideal introvert communication: with space to think and understand each other better.
‘Where else but cyberspace does the introvert have the opportunity to start in our comfort zone of written communication and talk later? How else can you defy geography and search widely for a soul connection? And because introverts can often open up more easily in a written message, Internet communication can also enhance existing relationships.’ – Laurie A. Helgoe.