On Being Speechless

I wander to the quiet side in situations calling for chit-chat. While others exchange pleasantries, I remain silent, trying to think of something to say that anyone breathing would want to hear.

I commonly succumb to speechlessness during social functions. A concerned friend, trying to be helpful, once told me to write conversational hints on my palm before a party: “Bessy and Joe collect oil cans,” or “Don’s dog died.”

Wouldn’t hiding behind the drapes be less noticeable?

I worried about my conversational failings until I read Jonathon Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, and forgave myself. A character in the novel, a writer, explained that writing allowed him to be what he wanted to be. He could be funny because he had time to think of funny things. He could be confident because he had time to rethink his words: “With writing, I have second chances.”

In that passage, Foer explained me to myself. He helped me understand why I can’t think of anything to say to strangers in an elevator but enjoy giving speeches to large groups of them. When I give a speech, I have time to prepare, to revise, and to remember the words of beak-nosed Mr. Evans, my high-school speech teacher: “Practice, practice, practice until the words are what you want.”

group discussionSeveral years ago, I attended a workshop for people involved with non-profit organizations. Its theme was “creating effective personal and professional networks.” I assumed I would learn to use technology to contact fellow organizations and donors: a convenient, cozy way for me to communicate. I’d have unlimited time to think through and improve my message.

To my dismay, the instructor advocated face-to-face conversation as the best way to connect with donors. Convenient and cozy panicked and fled.

She proved her point by dividing us into small groups and giving us five minutes to discover three attributes we had in common. She urged us to find traits more unusual than wearing clothing, attending school, or walking.

I heard the theme from Mission Impossible as I surveyed my assigned fellows: a dewy-faced youngster who had yet to look up from her cellphone; a large, overlapping man with leadership ambitions; a fussy fellow who dropped things; and me—more comfortable with my computer keyboard than strangers.

Five minutes later, laughing like old friends, we reported we all struggled with how much to tip, had watched 24, and disliked liver. I had talked easily to strangers and survived.

I once read that an extrovert goes home after a social function thinking, “Why couldn’t I control my mouth? I talked way too much;” while an introvert thinks, “I couldn’t come up with a thing to say. They must think I’m a bit slow.”

As an introvert, my preference is to smile and linger mutely in a corner — like a happy houseplant — but thanks to a lifetime of experiences, such as a coerced conversation with strangers in a workshop, I know I can push beyond my comfort zone and chat it up with the best of them.

And when I do, I’m pleased with myself.





34 thoughts on “On Being Speechless

    • Thanks for asking, Jan. For the last third of my professional life, I worked as a consultant to school districts seeking to bring about change and delivered any number of motivational speeches as well as presentations ranging from an hour to three days for large and small groups at workshops. They were happy years for me.


  1. Oh, Aunt Janet, you have described me as well!! Even in groups that I feel very comfortable with, ie family, I am the silent one. I can’t come up with the quick responses. I’m left behind in thought wondering what to say. But, I LOVE to speak in public! Give me a subject and the podium, and I have words at my fingertips.

    As a teen, I was very quiet because I never knew what to say! Years later, I learned from a High School classmate that I was considered “stuck up” because I didn’t ever say anything. While it broke my heart that people viewed me that way, I have learned that it is okay to be the silent one in conversation. I will give my “2-cents” once in awhile, but people that really know me, love and understand me even when I am “the quiet one”.

    Loved this post!


  2. Being an extrovert, I never shy away from engaging anyone in conversation. The down side of that trait is that sometime it drives people away. I guess they think I am an overbearing oaf, but I seriously enjoy social settings. Nice honest post.


  3. The book ” Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” By Susan Cain was a real life changer for me. I have always known I was an introvert, especially in social settings like you describe above. After reading this book, I am proud of this characteristic and see how I need to take care of myself after a draining social engagement. Great line about the drapes, I was laughing out loud.
    It is why I enjoy writing, giving myself the time to say what I want and my voice the opportunity to speak without worry, is such a gift to myself.


  4. I’ll have to get the Cain book, Carrie; sounds like something I’d enjoy. I, too, find solace in writing for the reasons you mentioned. I so enjoyed your phrase “…and my voice the opportunity to speak without worry.” Lovely.


  5. I consider myself an introvert too—although pretty good with one-to-one conversations I’m rather quiet in large groups, and terrified (at least in my younger days) of public speaking. Oddly enough, it was volunteering in an elementary school classroom that bolstered my confidence in front of larger groups!
    I’ve heard great things about the book Carrie referred to. I’ll have to pick up a copy.

    Oh, I also chuckled at the “hiding behind the drapes” line. You have a wonderful way with words, Janet!


  6. I to, am a complete introvert, never interested in shoes, children, dating, usual topics of small talk. I was the one at family functions, silencing the room by asking after Uncle Hoppy, when no one told me he had been dead for three years. Hitchiking, most people picked me up because they wanted someone to talk to, so that was cool. I don’t public speak, but enjoy open Mic reading. Very funny post thanks Janet!.


  7. Aunt Janet – What a “SHOCK” it was to learn that you consider me to be an extrovert!! 🙂 I always go home after get togethers thinking, “What in the heck was I thinking?? Why did I say so much and who did I offend this time??!!??” 🙂 I always considered myself to be shy and introverted. Like Dawna, I was considered “Stuck Up” in high school because I didn’t talk much. I think it’s a good thing that I didn’t!! I probably have more friends due to my silence than I would have had I spoke what I was thinking!! 🙂
    Thank you for your articles!! Keep them coming!!
    Lots Of Love,
    The Quiet Holt Girl 🙂


    • Loved this comment, Kathleen. Never, ever would I have described you as either stuck up or introverted. And, in my opinion, if you ever offend people, it’s because they have absolutely so sense of humor at all!


  8. I am an extrovert at conversation but an introvert in that I need time to myself to relax, regroup. So while I don’t have your exact issue, I understand the feeling of wanting to flee to be alone:). Good for you for sticking it out and trying something new.


    • I have a friend who sounds like you: she shines in conversation like a bright bulb, but needs to retreat into a quiet place to recharge her energy. I enjoyed your comment; I’ll visit your blog soon.


    • I think we do, Rebecca. I know from reading your blog that you share my comfort with, and enjoyment of, words. And, of course, we both enjoy your dad’s humor. Whenever he calls me, I know I’ll be laughing for the next half hour.


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