I remember being greeted by my friends’ parents, being welcomed into their humble suburban Chicago homes, a quick “hi” escaping from my mouth as I immediately ran upstairs to scream and play in my friends’ bedrooms. I was never great at making small talk and although my friends’ parents liked me, they thought nothing more of me than a “sweet, quiet, but polite girl.” Back then, with childhood fantasies occupying my mind, “quiet” meant nothing to me, but today the definition and significance of the seemingly insignificant word has left me with a mark I cannot erase.
Growing up in an Asian-American household had taught me I had to respect my elders, speak only when spoken to, and refrain from raising my voice. The usual. My “quiet” personality didn’t necessarily stem from the common rules of a South Asian household I had to adhere to, however, because I never said much unless I felt like it was truly necessary. I was a thinker, a doer even, but not much of a talker. Hell, I didn’t even start talking until I was three years old—a late bloomer indeed. And even when I did, it wasn’t your usual beginner toddler language like “me hungwy” or “me want mommy” or whatever toddlers say these days. I spoke in full sentences.
As a young girl, my quietness amplified because I spent more time reading books and growing to love them as I would any close companion. My mom always told me, “Friends will come and go, but books will never leave your side.” Her words could not ring truer even today. Since then, I made her wise words an internal motto, owing much of my knowledge and my thirst for wanderlust to these books that always remained by my side. I conversed with my stuffed animals, showing them pictures that were beautifully illustrated in each picture book. I lived in a world where all humans were wonderful and loved each other equally.
My quiet, fantasy world was obstructed when I started entering the teenage years, which like many people’s, were filled with angst. I recall my best friend’s mom telling me that I needed to interact with their family more, that I kept to myself too much and unlike her daughter (and my best friend), I talked much too less. Even as a young teen, I remember feeling disappointed and offended. My personality was being judged by the fact that words didn’t come out of my mouth as often as they should. And even if they wanted to, my mind would filter them more than your average “talker’s,” which actually made it more difficult to speak my mind. Being a listener and a thinker were just a part of my personality that I couldn’t change, even though I tried.
Middle school and high school were a breeze—luckily—and I had no problem making friends that I still keep in touch with today. These friends had given me a chance and our friendships had blossomed over the years. College worked in a similar way until my second year. I was chosen to be a Resident Advisor and had to work with 12 others like me to manage our particular dorm. Our orientation week was supposed to be a complete bonding experience where “you would make friends for life.” Because I wasn’t a talker and usually couldn’t initiate conversation with strangers, I was left behind. Ignored. When celebrating the end of our training week, we had to say what we thought about each other and phrase it in compliment format. Over 75% of my peers referred to me as the “quiet one.” None of them had taken the time to have a real conversation with me. They had collectively judged me for the words I never spoke.
As the year went on, I went out of my comfort zone to approach some of them, but to no avail. Once I had been labeled with the “quiet” stamp, there was no going back. When problems arose that year, I was hesitant to confront the more experienced Resident Advisors for fear of what they would think of me. I learned everything on my own, what worked and what didn’t, from trial and error. It was a difficult year, both academically and personally and would’ve gone much more smoothly had I made friends on my staff, but unfortunately there was nothing I could to do change it.
It still amazes me when people are forced to complement each other (like I was required to do during my three years as an RA due to team-building exercises) and how many people use that opportunity to tell their peers that they’re “quiet and nice” people—a pathetic excuse for missing the opportunity to get to know the individual better. I would rather hear “I haven’t had the chance to get to know you yet” than “You’re quiet.” The former has room for potential growth, while the latter expresses a false assumption that stunts the formation of further relationships. You become an outcaste without a logical reason. It’s prejudice, stereotyping at its best, but in a subtler, non-traditional manner.
I sit here writing this piece, grateful for those close friends that didn’t cast me out because upon first impression, I was the “quiet one.” I don’t know where I would be had they made the same judgments about me as my co-workers had. I know there are many others out there like me—stamped with the same labels of “quiet”. To this day, I refrain from calling anyone “loud” or “quiet” because superficial designations for volume should never be used to categorize the true qualities of people around us. They do not rightly define who we are. It is unfair, unjust even to limit someone’s personality to the sole words they speak (or don’t speak for that matter). Everyone deserves a chance to be known.
My friends today, the ones who have invested time in creating a friendship with me, will say I’m anything but quiet as I would say the same about them. “Quiet” has never been a quality that has defined me and it will never be. I am much more than that.