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Elena Dumitru - What we say when we say nothing | People of Justice 2023 Bucharest

Do we always need to say something to really convey it? Are we strange if we choose to say nothing? Elena Dumitru came to People of Justice '23 to tell us about the power of introverts and how the silence of those who choose not to always be up front is worth a lot. And one more thing: Did you know that "weird" is a word that comes from the Bulgarian language, where it means "wonderful"?

Author: Elena Dumitru

There is this pressure that society puts on us: to be more vocal, to come forward, to make our point clearly and forcefully. While an extrovert gains energy from social interactions, an introvert loses energy in these interactions and then needs time with themselves to recalibrate. I've never heard of extroverts who are dissatisfied with who they are. Instead, there are thousands of introverts who would like to be different.

I was in second grade, when my teacher said something that stayed with me to this day:

“Elena, stop being so serious.”

I've always been the quiet student in the first row, and that day I didn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact, the intention behind her words was good, but in the mind of an eight-year-old, who had just started to mature prematurely, those words had no place. I felt misunderstood or non-compliant, as the lawyers would say. But that was just the beginning. In time, “don't be so serious.” became: “you should be more active”, “raise your hand, why are you depressed?”, “you should smile more.”, You've seen what a serious person looks like, who smiles forcibly?

Our brain is always looking for ways to save energy. When we get unclear information, we fill in the gaps with assumptions or generalisations. The method is very effective and allows us to make decisions in situations of uncertainty, but biases, some of our previous experiences and stereotypes can influence how we fill these gaps.

This is how we come to believe that a child who sits most of the time alone, withdrawn, with a toy or a book in his hand, is sad or has a problem. Something must must be “wrong” with him. It's impossible to accept that a student who sits in the front row, comes to every class and says nothing, has no problem. Psychologically, it's hard for us to accept. My primary school teacher had the best of intentions, like all the others later on: relatives, friends or teachers who didn't want but to help me. To help me to find the courage to say... “something”. Because from their reality, my quiet universe looked sad. They had no way of knowing that even alone, in an apparent shell, you can be fine with yourself.

And when I understood that, I no longer felt that anyone had anything personal with me. And the truth is that silences, in general, are uncomfortable. So we give them a meaning, to give them volume: “you're arrogant, you don't trust yourself”, “you're anxious”, ”you have nothing interesting to say”,

“You're... weird.” Maybe. But I've been looking in the dictionary, and weird is a word that comes from Bulgarian, where it means “wonderfull”.

There's this pressure that society is putting on us: to be more vocal, to come forward, to make our point clearly and forcefully. For a reserved person in sharing their thoughts, the fact that society appreciates this way of being creates a feeling of insecurity, a sense of: “I don't fit in, so I don't count.” But I don't want to talk about what the society or the world is missing for not understanding the introverts. Susan Cain wrote a bestseller in which she explains very nicely how an extrovert gains energy from social interactions, while an introvert loses energy in these interactions and then needs time with themselves to recalibrate.

But I wonder: what do we lose ourselves?

Because we are born, every one of us, with a unique way of being, which is given to us precisely to grow and to develop, to cope challenges that life puts before us. And “how” I am did not prevent me from doing things. It hasn't stopped me from being head of class in high school, directing short films, going through a leadership program and then managed “Drept în Carieră” project, a program that I feel very strongly about and that my colleague told you about earlier.

The beauty is that.. it helped me. And if I had changed who I am, I wouldn't be here right now.

I've never heard of extroverts who are dissatisfied with who they are. Instead, there are thousands of introverts who would like to be different. Because they feel unappreciated, ignored and falsely labelled. But it's not enough to stop bothering about what you are, and accept what you are. That's just the first step. The second and the most important, is to begin to see meaning in tge way you are. For me, responsibility, seriousness and the fact that I chose to speak rarely, little or at all, has helped me to have space and time. Lots of time to look inside myself. That's how I discovered that I find fulfillment in being there for those who need me, when they need me. And that requires silence, so I can hear them, and time, so I can be with them.

But there is a danger: that of identifying yourself so deeply with the label of being a quiet and reserved person, that you give up from ever being anything else, just so you don't attract the spotlight on yourself. If as an introvert you do something unnatural, those around you will tell you: “but you're not like that” or “ah, you've changed”. No, I haven't changed. Tomorrow, I'll need ♪ peace and space ♪ for my thoughts and my feelings right now. Today, instead, I choose to transform my silence into a story.

Because, even from silence, I believe we can make meaningful things, same as in another story that I like very much about a child and starfish that goes like this:

On a stormy night, the waves tossed on the beach tens of thousands of little starfish, which now, soaked in sand, were suffocating. Alone on this beach was a child washing the little starfish. And the process was long, arduous, because the sand got everywhere. And while this child struggled to save the starfish, a man dressed in black comes up to him and says: “Why do you bother?”, “Can't you see how many there are?”, “You won't be able to save them all!” And the kid, throwing the starfish that he had just managed to clean, answers him: “No”. “But for this one I did everything.”

An advice can be bad. A speech can be unsuccessful. You might not like a particular story. But an empathetic ear is always an unseen embrace of a heart that cares. It's a free gift, that anyone can give. And no matter if what I said was music or clangor, your silence has spoken beautifully to me.

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