Living Madly: Quiet, Please

Photo courtesy of Josh Hild

Living Madly: Quiet, Please

By Emilie-Noelle Provost

I’ve always had a low tolerance for noise. I can clearly remember being in the first grade and looking forward to the time each afternoon when our teacher would tell us it was time to sit at our desks and read quietly. It was my favorite part of the day.

My daughter, Madelaine, likes to tell the story about how when she was a toddler, I took the batteries out of her Tickle Me Elmo (a gift from a well-meaning friend). I told her the part of the toy that talked was broken, explaining that Elmo was still fun to play with when he was quiet. I still feel kind of guilty about it. Luckily, Madelaine thinks it’s funny.

I’ve been known to sit in the car for hours without noticing that the radio isn’t on. I always have the volume on my computer turned off. I seek out restaurants without televisions in them. I even removed the whistle from our tea kettle.

I don’t do much better with bright lights. I’ll never comprehend the need some people have to turn on every light fixture in their home the minute the sun starts to set. I do just fine with a single table lamp.

A few years ago, these sensitivities—combined with the fact that I go out of my way to avoid crowds, despise small talk, and would much rather sit on the couch doing cross stitch than go to a party or, God help me, a business mixer—started to worry me. Most people I know have no problem doing any of these things. I began to wonder if there might be something wrong with me.

For much of my life, people have interpreted my need for quiet and my inclination to avoid talking until I actually have something to say, as aloofness. The fact that I need to spend time alone in order to maintain my mental wellbeing has often been viewed the same way. I’ve been told by teachers, friends, co-workers, and even members of my own family that I spend too much time in my own head, that I should really try to be more outgoing.

After doing some research (which I enjoyed), I discovered that I’m what’s known as a highly sensitive person (HSP). I’m also an introvert. There isn’t anything wrong with me or with anyone else who shares these traits. According to Psychology Today, fifteen to twenty percent of the population is highly sensitive, and about seventy percent of that group are introverts.

The brains of introverts and people with HSP processes stimuli differently than those of people who are very outgoing or extraverted. While people in the latter group often feel energized by being in large crowds or surrounded by bustling activity, introverts, especially highly sensitive ones, are just the opposite: It doesn’t take much to overload their circuits.

One of the books I read was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. In it, Cain, who is an introvert herself, explains that being introverted can be an advantage in both in the business world and in everyday life. Both introverts and people with HSP tend to be better judges of character than most extroverts. They’re very good at hiring and managing people, and often excel as innovators and problem solvers.

Introverts tend to have fewer but more intimate and longer lasting friendships than extroverts. They are especially good at being able to tell if something is bothering someone they care about. They often see solutions to problems before extroverts do because they’re better at filtering out external noise. They think before they act, rather than acting as a form of thinking.

For millennia in cultures around the world, introverts have occupied the roles of artists, shamans, writers, philosophers, scientists, tacticians, and healers. They were respected members of society, their unique talents highly valued.

But somehow, in our own culture, quiet has gone out of fashion. Introverts are collectively seen as snobbish, mercurial, passive, incompetent, or in some way dangerous to the rest of society. The Puritans persecuted them as witches.

We disproportionally value those who seek the spotlight, putting the loud and the brash on pedestals under the false conviction that these are the only people capable of getting things done. The go-getters, the big talkers, the idea people, the social butterflies, and the intrepid are seen by many as redeemers.

As a result, many smart, capable, quiet people, and their ideas, have been disregarded or ignored. We don’t believe they have anything of value to contribute because their voices have been drowned out by the noise.

While extroverts take steps to solve problems quickly, causing onlookers to view them as heroes, they often miss important details. Introverts might take longer to respond when something goes wrong, but it’s because they take the time to figure out a problem’s cause before tackling it, often coming up with more creative, long-term solutions.

Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum or what your background is, it’s hard not to recognize that the world is a mess in innumerable ways. If we’re going to resolve our problems, we need more thinkers, fewer demagogues, more empathy, and less flash. We need to switch off our neon signs, our smartphones, and our television monitors and bring back the poets, the architects, and the seers—and we need to listen carefully to what they have to say.


Emilie-Noelle Provost (she/her). Author of The River Is Everywhere, a National Indie Excellence Award and American Fiction Award finalist, and The Blue Bottlea middle-grade adventure with sea monsters. Visit me at

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