I wasn’t always quiet, but now that I am I can’t imagine going back. The silence set in out of necessity: When I first moved to Canada for college in fall 2018, I had no one to talk to. First of all, this was because I had less than zero interest in being in college, so that already wiped out a large chunk of my social pool. Add on a complete lack of understanding of Western culture and you’ve got a recipe for social isolation.
The first time I didn’t want anything, anymore.
That morning, I woke up at 6.45. I had to get on a video call with my sister at 7AM, which is 9 PM in Malaysia. I made…
And since I had nothing to say for so long, I devoted all my attention to listening. I stepped off the path even more trying to absorb everything new until I knew what to say and how to say it, again. Except the absorbing never stopped, and it even leaked into the realms I already knew, as well. Now, I’m the ghost in every social scene. I was surprised when I recently realized that even my interactions with introverts who really don’t like talking are predominantly filled with their talking. I’ve become the quiet guy even around introverts. To be honest, that’s mildly unsettling.
Here’s what I learned through all that listening, so far.
1. People talk when they think someone will hear them.
But most of the time, they don’t think anyone will.
When you give someone the impression that you’re listening, they let on a lot more than they would. Usually, giving the signal that you’re listening is as simple as asking them questions a lot, which is what I do by default, anyway. This is super different from a dynamic where you do most of the talking.
By listening, I discovered that people always have things to say. It’s just a matter of getting them to say it. Personally, I have tons of things to say, it’s just that I don’t think anyone will comprehend them, hence my silence. Being an “outlet” of sorts for these bottled-up messages people have can be really nice for both parties, as long as the listener is authentic.
I happen to be fascinated by people, which is why I don’t mind (and, in fact, really enjoy) just learning more about people by hearing them talk. That’s right, I’m the extroverted social butterfly who’s quiet as fuck. And that’s put me in a unique position: I surround myself with people as much as possible, but when around them I just absorb. Living this way made me realize people always start talking eventually when they feel like they have someone to talk to.
2. The world moves on, with or without you.
People are tremendously fickle, and they can easily leave you behind.
When you spend most of your energy observing, you detect more minute changes in people. You realize what many of us who think we’re indispensable don’t want to know: That things move on, with or without us. Burying your head in the sand, even if it’s to preserve the memory of something you don’t want to let go of, doesn’t stop the rest of the herd from moving along.
I learned this one the hard way. When I was reunited with my sister after a year of being away, I immediately noticed the gap that had formed. Rather naively, I thought, “This is a whole separate person with a whole separate life!” I’m not sure why I didn’t expect this eventual divergence to become clear, especially since we’re both at an age where we’re growing a lot.
3. We all think our problems are the biggest.
Everyone has their own issues. Whether it’s as significant as childhood trauma or as trivial as too few likes on Instagram, our problems always feel like the biggest.
I figured this one out just working through issues with people. You’ll be surprised when you hear one person talking about not getting into equestrian school and another person talking about losing their family — they talk about it with the same gravity. Seeing this taught me how to recognize real problems in the world, a perspective that has been a crucial component of my happiness. After all, when you realize the problems you have are actually trivial, even the downs start looking a lot better.
The more you listen to people, the more problems you hear about. And once you’ve heard enough of those, you realize how easily they can be blown out of proportion.
4. Change is hard, so it hardly happens.
If you feel like someone’s changed, you probably just didn’t know them well enough.
Take me, for instance. I’ve “changed a lot” by most accounts, even if you ask the people who know me the best. But if you ask the person who knows me the very best, that’s me, I haven’t changed at all. I’ve always been asking questions, and it’s no different now. My routine, values, friends, and country change all the time, sure, but deep down I’m still doing the same thing I’ve always been doing. I’m still fundamentally the same person: A curious heterosexual male looking for a soulmate, but happy to go on smaller adventures while waiting.
People don’t change, they grow. It’s not the same, because an apple tree that grows from a seed is, and has always been, an apple tree. It might look different at different stages of its life, but it never stops being an apple tree.
I’ve never experienced real change myself, so I can’t comment on what it looks like. All I know is that it hardly happens because it’s really, really hard to alter everything you are, all the way down. How did I get this from listening? I started to see just how long habits and assumptions stay up, even when people think they’ve pulled them down. When you don’t even realize you’re doing something, how could you change it to something else?
5. People are really, really different.
If you think otherwise, you just don’t know enough people well enough.
I almost didn’t include this one because it’s so obvious, but then I remembered the one time someone asked me if women are the same everywhere I’ve met them. In response, I smiled for a while, trying to stifle my laughter, then said, “What a boring world that would be.”
The truth is, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but the world is filled with hundreds of millions of trees. This is one of the reasons I’m so enamoured by people — no two are really the same. It’s convenient to pretend they are sometimes, such as when you feel like trash-talking the government, but when you get down to it we’re all uniquely us.
Ironically, this took me a while to learn even when I was meeting so many different people. Why? Because when I first started meeting so many different folks, I wasn’t super comfortable outside of the familiar, just as most people aren’t. Hence I constantly searched for familiar points of connection even in new relationships. In other words, quirks weren’t even on my radar since I was just looking for similarities so that I could feel more comfortable. That’s why the prettiest nuances of different cultures and groups were largely unknown to me until very recently.
It might not seem that way at first, but when you listen to a whole lot of people, you realize just how distinct we all are.
I can’t say there’s an activity I enjoy more than listening. Eating comes close, but the physical limitations of my stomach make it unsustainable over long periods of time. So I guess I’ll be listening for a while.
If you have something to say, you know where to find me.
If you’d like to read more lessons from my journey:
3 Things I Learned from Disappearing
At age eighteen, I moved to Canada to go to college. That fall of 2018 marked the first time I felt free to do whatever…
If you like hearing unpopular opinions and provocative insights, you’ll love my daily podcast. It’s about ambition, mindset, and happiness (AKA being human). I also write about tech and fashion. And the best trick hidden up my sleeve? Fashion design.