A friend of mine recently noticed that her employer had referred to her as a ‘quiet member of staff’ in a job reference he wrote for her. She was concerned, understandably, that this could come across as a negative trait, i.e. for ‘quiet’, read: boring, shy, timid or – dare I say it – introverted.
She politely asked him not to use the expression in future and pointed out that he would be unlikely to refer to a extroverted member of staff as ‘loud’ in a job reference because this would more obviously sound quite negative. Now I hope that my friend’s courage in challenging her employer’s assumptions may make him think a bit more about his choice of words next time, but to be honest, I doubt he really ‘got’ what she was trying to tell him.
Labelling someone as ‘quiet’ seems innocuous on the face of it, but actually the word still carries distinctly negative undertones, albeit quite subtle. As for ‘introvert’ though, well that’s a full-blown dirty word, and admitting to being one is still akin to a confession at Alcoholics Anonymous.
Despite all the work being done by Susan Cain and others in the US to champion the power of Quiet, the general association of ‘extrovert’ as ‘good’ and ‘introvert’ as ‘bad’ is still deeply ingrained in Western societies. These unconscious biases start early on, in school reports, for example. Mine were always full of expressions like ‘works hard but very quiet’ or ‘needs to talk more in class’ and I suspect there are many teachers who still use such statements today.
But actually, what I’m arguing for here is not that people stop using words like ‘quiet’ and ‘introverted’ to describe us, because that just puts them in the category of ‘non PC’. What I really want to happen is that everyone has an accurate understanding of what these words truly mean.
In my ideal world, my friend would not have worried about her employer using the expression ‘quiet member of staff’ because she would take it for granted that, for ‘quiet’, people would read: thoughtful, independent, measured and – yes – introverted.