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“You’re so quiet!”

Word of advice: the next time you’re about to say this to a quiet person, don’t. Trust me, every quiet person has heard it a thousand times before. And if you just can’t help yourself, don’t expect more in response than a shrug and a wry smile.

I am by nature a quiet person and no stranger to the bemused stares of more gregarious types.

Part of this is due to natural reserve, and shyness, and a dislike of being centre of attention. I prefer to speak only when I really have something to say, rather than for the sake of filling a silence. Small talk is not my forte. I’m an avid listener and master eavesdropper, and am far more comfortable observing others than holding court with a captive audience.

The other reason for my innate quietness is my often maddening inability to be articulate.

I am not without intelligent opinions, but so often when I try to express them verbally, I falter.

As soon as I am put on the spot, my expressive faculties freeze. It’s as if there’s a roadblock in my mind, obscuring the clear, straight road ahead and forcing my thoughts along a poorly-lit, winding detour. By the time I’ve finished speaking I’ve driven the words around in circles and ended up in an entirely different direction than intended.

In university tutorials I would sit in silent awe at the fierce articulacy of my peers, as they debated interpretations and theories with great confidence. Whenever it was my turn I would stumble my way to a brief and simplistic answer, doing my best to avoid sounding dim. When I had to give presentations, I could endure them only by sticking firmly to my script and minimising eye contact with my audience, thus breaking the golden rules of effective public speaking. Any hint of improvisation would derail things altogether. I’ve also found when public speaking that I lose the ability to talk like an actual human person, and instead force the words out in a flat monotone like a dysfunctional robot.

There can be delightful moments of total fluency, particularly if the conversation has turned to an interest I’m passionate about. Suddenly I feel I could ramble for hours about that great television drama I want to convince everyone to see, or an incredible exhibition I visited.

More often than not, however, the awkwardness reigns. Quietness seems to make many people uncomfortable, and some just can’t resist trying to draw me into conversation even if I don’t feel like talking. The results of such encounters are often cringe-worthy. Many is the hour I’ve spent replaying a stupid comment or awkward conversation from weeks or months ago in my head, and I feel the agony as keenly as if it happened moments ago. I’m the type to come up with the perfect witty response months after the conversation took place, long after the other person is likely to have forgotten all about it.

My only respite from all this nonsense is the written word. On the page, my thoughts flow more easily. When I write, my fingertips dash across the keyboard, or my pen scrawls rapidly along the page. Without the pressure of expectant eyes staring at me I can be articulate, eloquent, even verbose.

Writing is my safety net, a liberating form of expression that allows my voice to be heard. I may sometimes feel like I’m whispering into the abyss, but at least I’m saying something. In writing I get to speak only when I want to and witter on as much or as little as I need.

I may never master the art of coherent speech and I’ll always be one of the quiet ones. But I’m okay with that. I hope other people can be cool with that too.

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