Thursday, 8 September 2016

The 'quiet ones'

Last week, I went to see Laura Marling play, and she was just as wonderful as ever. She's tiny, but her stage presence is what a music journalist might refer to as 'commanding' – she walks onto the stage a little tentatively, but once that guitar's in hand, there's no doubt in anyone's mind as to who's in control. She owns each song completely, strumming her way through everything from the wistful, meandering Goodbye Old England to the rapid crescendo of Sophia. It's always a pleasure to be in Laura's aura – there's an ethereal air to her performances that's down to more than just her white blonde hair and floaty blouses.

If I had to sum up her performance, putting my serious music reviewer hat on, I'd probably describe it as quietly authoritative. Which is why the next day, I was a bit surprised to hear the alternative take of some of my fellow festival goers. 'Aloof', they said. 'Didn't look that bothered to be there.' 'Too quiet.' 'Not headliner material.' Where was the entertaining patter between songs, they wondered? I countered these reviews like any true fan girl would – she's not aloof! I insisted, that's just self assurance. She's a great artist but she doesn't love the spotlight, and witty stage banter doesn't come naturally to everyone, after all. I'm not sure they were convinced.

Thinking about it, these criticisms bothered me in more than just my capacity as a Marling super fan. Because you see I grew up being described as all of the words lobbed at Laura Рquiet, a bit shy, lacking in confidence. A (thankfully former) boyfriend kindly once told me that most of his friends thought I was boring, which I'm sure was down to my lack of go-getting self-confidence around unfamiliar people. For those of us not blessed with what you could call the gift of the gab Рthat unfailing ability to immediately make friends wherever you go, breezing through life and groups of strangers like Beyoncé at the Grammys, wowing everyone in your wake Рthese sorts of labels are commonplace, however misplaced they might be.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say they're certainly misplaced in my case, because however much people might have assumed it of me, I'm not actually all that shy. I've got just as many insecurities as the next 20-something, but I wouldn't say I'm crippled by a lack of self-confidence, either. I've got plenty of opinions, not all of them stolen from the Guardian, but I also happen to be terrible at articulating myself in a debate, which means I'm forever losing out to men who don't necessarily have the better argument, just the better way of arguing. And as for being quiet – as any of my close friends can attest, I've actually got quite the gob on me.

Still though, for me and many of the other so-called 'quiet ones' among the population, life is one big conveyer belt of challenging social situations. While we might go into such situations attempting to channel the confidence and attitude of slutty Sandy at the end of Grease, more often than not, we come out of them feeling like pre-makeover Sandra-dee, lousy with humility, if not virginity.

And the stress that starts at a young age, with awkward school discos and bouncy castle-filled birthday parties, never really ends. You move on to the struggle of university halls and house parties, looking on from the sidelines as the BNOCs hold court and head off on their 'socials', the thought of which fills you with abject horror. This then gives way to no end of adult challenges – job interviews where you have to talk about yourself for an extended period of time; meetings where you have to voluntarily make yourself the centre of attention; gatherings where you have no choice but to mingle with the strange friends of your old friend's shiny new Tinder boyfriend.

So how do us quiet ones actually cope? Well as you get older, you tend to get better at grappling with the weight of societal expectations. Alcohol is obviously the veritable lubricant for a quiet person's entrance into social circles, so that definitely helps. But it isn't a cure-all, obviously. So practicing a bit of exposure therapy is important: if I could, I would honestly sit at home watching TV every single night, eating Hobknobs and not speaking to anyone. But I know that while that might be the easy option, and certainly the less stressful, you can't just opt out of having a social life. So these days, I say yes to the invitations that I know I'd turn down for no good reason other than the looming spectre of small talk. I try not to merely cackle in the corner with the people I already know once I get there (which I definitely grew up doing), and I also try to ignore the part of my brain that screams 'ABORT! ENGAGE TOILET EXCUSE!' when a stranger starts talking to me.

And what about small talk, ironically often the biggest issue of all for the socially anxious? There was a time when I thought I was one of those people who just couldn't do small talk. Who'd forever see the office kitchen as a place of echoing tea spoons and stray tumbleweeds. And then I learnt what I think is up there among the most important life skills you can possibly acquire: simply, the art of asking questions. My own epiphany came from one of Caitlin Moran's columns years ago, when she wrote this (for me, anyway) life-changing statement: "Whenever you can’t think of something to say in a conversation, ask people questions instead. Even if you’re next to a man who collects pre-Seventies screws and bolts, you will probably never have another opportunity to find out so much about pre-Seventies screws and bolts, and you never know when it will be useful."

I still can't say I know too much about Seventies screws and bolts, but what I do know is that with this piece of advice firmly in mind, small talk now doesn't seem so scary. More than this, though, I've learnt that while not everyone can spot it, there's a big difference between meek and mild and quiet and commanding, à la Laura Marling. You might not have the loudest voice in the room. Parties might fill you with a fair amount of existential dread. But you still have plenty to offer Рand you might just surprise people with quite how much. They don't say 'it's always the quiet ones' for nothing.