When my dad died last summer at the age of 81, the one word people kept using to describe him was quiet.
Objectively speaking, Dad was indeed much quieter than most. But quiet just doesn’t cut it as a way to truly encapsulate who he was. It’s too easy, too simplistic to be his epitaph. Because like most strong introverts — and Dad was the introvert’s introvert, to be sure — my father wasn’t quiet simply for quiet’s sake. Precision matters on this one. Charles Vogt didn’t value quietness per se. He simply prioritized quality over quantity when it came to communicating — a trait he shared with virtually all other “quiet” introverts.
As I put it in his obituary:
[He] didn’t talk much. But when he did, he said a lot.
That’s different than plain old quiet. Not even remotely the same. Because you always knew that if my dad bothered to invest the time and energy in actually saying something, either verbally or, in his last years, via email or — shock of all shocks — text, it must be important. It must be worth listening to. And you’d be very unlikely to forget it.
My friends often made fun of me in college because as I read my textbooks, I always ended up highlighting the vast majority of the material on each page. I highlighted so much that virtually every word was highlighted, the only thing standing out my complete inability to make things stand out. Sometimes I’d even re-highlight the highlighted material. By the time I was done, I had managed to cancel out all my own efforts in a dizzying sea of yellow and pink and green.
So many people fall into this same trap in their everyday communication lives: Overkill set on repeat. In a world that can’t stop talking (to borrow some of the subtitle from Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking), so many people have so many things to say about seemingly everything, at every moment, that it’s impossible to listen to them after a while — to say nothing of trying to remember their ramblings. It’s like trying to get a drink of water from the open floodgates of the Hoover Dam: You get your drink, but you end up drowning too.
The verbal drinks my dad served up may have been comparatively rare, and small, but they sure were refreshing. And memorable. Precisely because they were so rare and small.
My mom was telling us once about some guy who apparently had dropped dead while he was out for a walk near our house. As she often did — if you’re over the age of, say, 45, think Edith Bunker from All in the Family — Mom strayed off topic during her story, going into who the guy’s relatives were and where he lived and who he knew and who knew him and on and on and on. For a full 10 minutes we didn’t know what the ultimate point of her story would be. Or if there even was one.
You could see the thought bubble above my dad’s head, begging my mom: “Get to the point, get to the point.” Finally, he just couldn’t take it anymore. And he blurted out a three-word, CliffsNotes-has-nothing-on-this summary of my mom’s epic tale:
“Anyway, he died.”
Then he just burst out laughing, as did the rest of us.
Dad’s brevity wasn’t always funny, though. He wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady during our growing-up years (although as I went through his old clothes after he died, he appeared to be preparing for a day when he could at least dress like Mike Brady again). If the four of us kids were screwing around in the car, he wasn’t nearly as verbose as “I’ll stop this car and make you all walk.” Instead, it was — ironically — “quiet!” Or “knock it off!” And it was delivered with the full force of the lungs housed by his huge 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame.
Very easy to understand. Very memorable. Impossible to forget, in fact.
As were his responses in crisis situations.
My brother Mike showed up at the old house one day and told us all that his wife had up and left him, only an hour or two before. He was a mess, in shock. Dad was there the whole time, saying almost nothing and occasionally putting a mammoth hand on my broken brother’s shoulder.
That night, when we were all sitting around wondering what to do or say, it was my dad who somehow came up with just the right words at just the right time:
A few years back, my Uncle Gary took me aside one day, looked me in the eye very seriously, and said: “You know, Pete. You’re a young Chuck.” And it’s true: I am. It’s why I ended up writing The Introvert Manifesto, a book my dad loved. So much so that he really opened up after reading it and texted me, out of the blue, with his extensive feedback:
Nope, he really didn’t talk much. But when he did, he really did say a lot.
That was his gift to us all. It wasn’t ever about being quiet. It was about demonstrating, if only unconsciously, how less really can be more.
There’s an epitaph for you.