“Wasting Time” Discussing

“I was shocked by my first class at Stanford,” said *Junko, an articulate business woman residing in California short-term. Her husband is a visiting scholar at Stanford. “The way the students talked was so, so—” Wordless, she stopped.

“Casual?” I supplied. She nodded. Her shock conveyed much more than the word I supplied.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The book is rich with insights, stories and wise reflection. Its author, Susan Cain, has thoroughly researched, summarized, and synthesized decades of studies on introversion, extroversion, and sensitivity.

Cain discusses values that differ between American and Asian cultures and, correspondingly, their educational systems, in a section aptly titled Do All Cultures have an Extrovert Ideal? (Part III). Consider this vignette:

“The teaching back home is very different from here,” says Hung Wei Chien, a Cupertino mom who came to the United States from Taiwan in 1979 to attend graduate school at UCLA. “There, you learn the subject, and they test you. At least when I grew up, they don’t go off subject a lot, and they don’t allow the students to ramble. If you stand up and talk nonsense, you’ll be reprimanded.

Hung is one of the most jolly, extroverted people I’ve met, given to large, expansive gestures and frequent belly laughs…

So it’s telling that even Hung recalls her culture shock upon entering her first American-style classroom. She considered it rude to participate in class because she didn’t want to waste her classmates’ time. And sure enough, she says, laughing, “I was the quiet person there. At UCLA, the professor would start class, saying, ‘Let’s discuss!’ I would look at my peers while they were talking nonsense, and the professors were so patient, just listening to everyone.” She nods her head comically, mimicking her overly respectful professors…(184-5)

Junko, my student, encountered something similar at her first American classroom experience—quite surprising for her. If she thought students were wasting the time of the teacher and others, I wouldn’t expect her to tell me that frankly. From a Japanese perspective, that would be inconsiderate of my feelings—rude. Junko’s intensity implied criticism of the students’ discussion, at least in her initial reaction.

Since I’ve returned to California after six years n Japan, I’ve reacted similarly at times. I’ve sat in committee discussions wondering why, as someone strays far from the point, the leader says nothing. Back here now for fifteen years, west coast ways no longer seem so strange.

Cain’s book has lifted a weight from my shoulders. It explains my frequent sense of not fitting in socially. Inborn traits of high sensitivity, reactivity, and introversion are the culprits. Since Asian cultures value quiet, sensitive persons, it’s no wonder these introvert-honoring cultures have birthed my husband and many of the friends I cherish.

Quiet explores much more in its 271 pages. To see and hear an overview, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4

The book reveals how little American culture—especially business schools—understand the power and value of introverts, a rather sad fact. With our ever-increasing connections between West and East, we need that insight. Cain’s chapter on the varying perspectives of each can further mutual understanding.

Back to my student, Junko: I don’t believe she’ll harbor her shock and turn critical. She aims to adapt to customs and values of California. For myself, as a teacher of English to people of others languages, I aim to respect and adapt to ingrained differences. After all, it takes years, actually generations, before immigrants understand their host culture.

Knowing all this, when silence prevails after I ask an English-lesson group to choose between some options, I’m no longer uneasy. Several factors can be at work resulting in quiet. Some might not understand the question. Some won’t quickly volunteer their opinions for fear of imposing. I may ask each individually to find out their opinions. Sometimes I ask the group to discuss the question after I leave. They don’t want to waste my time. I appreciate that.

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