As I See It: The Quiet Among Us
by Victor Rozek
You almost certainly know one. And if your office has more than a handful of people, you probably work with one. Perhaps you're one yourself. If you are, people will label and judge you based not on what you do, but the way you are. You'll get fewer promotions and raises, and your achievements will be recognized more slowly than those of your peers. On any given day, you may be ignored by coworkers, or teased, or even harassed. It's not easy being shy.
Shy people often grow up believing something is wrong with them. It's not unusual that kids who retreat into silence have one or both parents who are rage-aholics and react to early attempts at self-assertion with anger and ridicule. The kids we call shy often feel overwhelmed by the world, and to cope they retreat inward to a place of safety from which adults repeatedly try to pry them out.
Consequently, shy kids endure an endless series of admonitions: "Come on, honey, don't be shy." And, "What's wrong with you, why don't you speak up?" And, "You're just too sensitive for your own good." They are encouraged to violate their own boundaries: "Go on, give your uncle a big hug." Or, "Go ask that little girl to dance." They experience shaming: "She's so bashful it's hard to get a word out of her. Isn't that right, honey?" Or, "Don't mind him; he's just introverted, aren't you, dear?" Since there are no answers to such questions that exonerate the accused, kids learn the value of silence, and years later they bring a strategic quiet to the workplace.
On the job, shyness can be a liability. Most shy people are socially introverted which, by definition, limits the frequency and type of interactions they are comfortable having. Consequently, shy people are seldom chosen for leadership positions and are less likely to engage in office politics in order to advance their own careers. They also speak up less in meetings, although having attended hundreds of meetings myself, I find this to be an admirable trait. As Muhammad Ali once said, "Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer." Easily affected by other people's moods, shy people prefer working alone or with minimal interaction. In the extreme, they are dismissed as lacking social experience and are presumed to have low self-esteem. This explains the image outsiders have of the stereotypical computer nerd: sloppy and disheveled, working in isolation, consuming copious amounts of bad food, more comfortable with machines than humans.
While labeling people as shy may be convenient, it gives us little insight into their process or their unique gifts. Besides, designations like "shy" and "introverted" confuse cause with effect. Shyness is the effect of what research psychologist Elaine Aron describes as being highly sensitive. And, as any good researcher will, she wrote the obligatory book on the subject, called "The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You." And while you don't have to be shy to be sensitive, Aron does offer an interesting perspective on the psychological makeup of sensitive people and the exceptional contributions they are suited to make.
To begin, Aron's research shows that "shy" people typically have very high sensory acuity. They take in a lot of information and notice a wealth of subtleties that others miss. As such, it makes them excellent observers. The difficulty with having highly developed sensory channels is that they remain open to a wide range of stimuli. Consequently, highly sensitive people have trouble screening out unwanted stimulation. Simple things, like bright lights or loud music, boisterous conversation or a chaotic environment--things that typically do not distress others--leave sensitive people feeling anxious and overstimulated. They have a lower tolerance for arousal, says Aron, and an openness to the deeper implications of experiences and interactions. Quite literally, they can feel your pain. When sensitive people walk into a room, Aron notes, they can be "instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of moods, friendships and enmities." I can personally recall having a low tolerance for bars in part because I quickly sensed the longing and desperation of people who frequent them, and in short order their neediness became overwhelming.
The downside to hyper-sensitivity is most evident in tense situations, which produce acute levels of stimulation. "What is moderately arousing for most people," Aron writes, "is highly arousing for HSPs [highly sensitive people]. What is highly arousing for most people causes an HSP to become very frazzled indeed, until they reach a shutdown point called 'transmarginal inhibition.' " At that stage, they typically need to go off by themselves to recharge.
Transmarginal inhibition was first identified by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov (of salivating dog fame), who was convinced "that the most basic inherited difference among people was how soon they reached this shutdown point and that the quick-to-shut-down have a fundamentally different type of nervous system." Thus, those who display the traits attributed to highly sensitive people are not right or wrong, good or bad, inferior or superior; they are just organized differently. However, they are probably not suited to high-stress work that requires exposure to continuous sensory overload. The dilemma for HSPs, as Aron concisely puts it, is that they are "a minority whose rights to have less stimulation are generally ignored."
Although acutely sensitive people have a lower tolerance for stress, their makeup has a considerable upside as well. Aron's research found that the traits HSPs commonly display are intuition, creativity, insight, passion, and caring, among others. They are both conscientious and cautious, artistic and inventive. In the workplace they are "better at spotting errors and avoiding making errors" and are "able to concentrate deeply." HSPs are especially good at tasks "requiring vigilance, accuracy, speed, and the detection of minor differences." That pretty well describes the skills a good programmer must routinely exhibit, and may explain in part why many HSPs are drawn to working with computers, where the stimulation level is controlled and predictable.
HSPs are also able to "process material to deeper levels of what psychologists call semantic memory," meaning they understand all the nuances, and tend to be more right-brained (creative) and less linear than their left-brained counterparts. Because they are cautious and able to sense more than the average person, HSPs make skilled advisors, counselors, mentors, and executive assistants.
They also perform a vital cultural service, according to Aron. In aggressive cultures such as ours, action is valued more highly than forethought. Where high levels of competitiveness are the norm, timidity is not a virtue, and opportunities are lost to people whose first impulse is to hesitate. In such a society, if the meek are to inherit the earth, it is because they have no other choice. Therefore, we are taught to take risks and plunge boldly ahead into the unknown. While these traits are desirable and necessary in order for society to move ahead, they also create their own set of unforeseen problems. As a class, Aron says, HSPs provide a necessary balance to the assertive tendencies of the culture by insisting that we stop and think. She offers this analogy: HSPs are to society what the Supreme Court is to the executive branch. They are the look-before-you-leap and consider-the-consequences crowd, a cross between a gadfly and a conscience. Aron writes, "They have the foresight . . . to look out for the well-being of those common folks on whom society depends, those who grow the food and raise the children. They warn against hasty wars and bad use of the land." That line was penned before 1996. Proof that HSPs are not always heeded.
Having exceptional advisory skills, many HSPs become "counselors, historians, teachers, scholars, and the upholders of justice." They are writers, philosophers, judges, theologians, and therapists. And they are also programmers and analysts, capable of deep, sustained concentration, detailed analysis, and a grasp of subtleties necessary to the creation of complex software. There is room, it seems, for all of us--leaders and followers, introverts and extroverts, the quiet and the expressive--and each of us has a unique contribution to make. The key, as always, is to fit the person to the job and the job to the person.
Ultimately, all of life is about relationships, and whether the relationships are interpersonal, commercial, or international, HSPs, by temperament, will provide a moderating influence. Perhaps the greatest gift highly sensitive people have to offer is a profound understanding of something author Peter Thomson wrote that is often forgotten in aggressive cultures that champion competition above collaboration.
"A light, tender, sensitive touch is worth a ton of brawn."