I am a people person. Life of the party. Can talk to anybody. Anytime. Anywhere. Men. Women. Children. Animals. I can find a way to connect with them all. I consider this a gift, I really do. I am not a shy person, but who knows? On the day that I get to meet my idol-since-I-was-14-years-old, Robert DeNiro, a genetically-latent trait of shyness may just reveal itself.
I always gravitate towards the “noisy” people, the ones just like me. The ones that are right there, center stage with an opinion, making their presence known. Aren’t we all attracted to whom and what is familiar?
I used to teach the English language to international students, aged mostly from 16-30. I once had a Japanese girl of about 20 in one of my idiom classes. Now, if you know anything about language, you might know that idioms are a language within the language, and are generally considered very difficult to learn. Here’s a couple: “take the bull by the horns” or “something you can sink your teeth into”; an easy one: “it takes two to tango”. Idioms are fun to interact with as a student, but are rarely employed by the foreign speaker thereafter. They simply incite too much insecurity.
So, here I was in idiom class, with a grand total of two students, which was very rare. However, as a teacher, I thought this was a wonderful opportunity for the students. It would be like private tutoring and they would get all the attention they wanted.
These two students, however, were polar opposites: One, a Thai young man, was fearless, outgoing, talkative, willing to take a risk. The Japanese girl, Yurie, was excruciatingly shy, withdrawn, profoundly insecure.
There we sat, in close proximity, in triangle formation. No matter what I did, Yurie would not speak. She was absolutely mute, frozen; she was completely unreachable – or so it seemed. With a class full of students, Yurie would have simply disappeared into the wall.
But, with two students, our situation was excruciating. It was obvious to the three of us that our one-hour class, every afternoon, was going to be miserable. It was truly an elephant-in-the-room situation. Something had to be done, plain and simple.
One day, we three were struggling along, trying to get some flow going. When I realized it just wasn’t going to happen – ever – I stopped working the material and said to Yurie, “Yurie, I am not a shy person. I never have been. I truly don’t know what it’s like to be shy. I would like for you to help me understand the best way to work with you. Can you help me?”
Talk about a brick in the wall coming down! What happened next was remarkable. Yurie, simply because I recognized who she was and called forth the fact that we were all challenged, was liberated in that moment.
The next day, and I am not exaggerating, Yurie showed up to class as a new person. Bubbly, giggly, smiling, full of enthusiasm, present. Yurie, from that day on, had a completely different experience as a student. She made friends with another Japanese girl and the two of them became thick as thieves. She attended activities, worked well in partnership with others in her other classes, and spoke up regularly. She had tears in her eyes the day she came to tell me it was time to go home.
Yurie’s life had changed that day by the simple fact of feeling recognized, perhaps for the first time in her life. It might sound corny, but she opened up that day, and, to coin an idiom, “blossomed like a flower”.
So, talk to the quiet people. They may just have an important lesson to learn. And an important lesson to teach.