Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to talk to an introvert

Based on what I've been reading, there are a lot of misconceptions floating around online and in person when it comes to the subject of introverts. People seem to think that all introverts are painfully shy (not necessarily), that they're social hermits who shun parties (that depends on the nature of the party), that they're oblivious navel-gazers (uh, we prefer the term "observant thinkers," thanks).

People gain and expend their energy in different ways. As you may have heard, introverts get their energy from downtime -- being left alone to read, watch movies, surf the web, daydream, create and otherwise "recharge." They don't have a problem with being alone; in fact, they'll go a little stir crazy if they don't get sufficient alone time. If you think of life energy as equivalent to money, downtime is how introverts make the cash they need to live.

Not lonely, just recharging.
So let's say your friendly neighborhood introvert has just spent several hours reading the latest Neil Gaiman novel and is feeling pretty flush with energy, and it's now time to sally forth and run errands. Errand-running means interacting with other people, and interacting with other people means spending some of that precious life energy. Most introverts expend their life energy the way people on a strict budget spend their money: carefully. They don't want to burn through their limited energy budget and not have anything meaningful to show for it.

This is why introverts, almost to a one, would gnaw off their own legs to avoid small talk; fluffy cotton-candy conversations about the weather and everyone's health and "how 'bout them Mariners" exhaust their limited energy reserves, and offer very little mental sustenance in return. This is also why many introverts avoid parties, especially parties where they don't know anyone; small talk is often the first step to getting to know others better, but introverts have such low tolerance for idle chitchat that they don't end up making new friends at such gatherings. Instead they tend to hover in an obscure corner, just breathing and listening to other people, or they flee the intense mix-and-mingle areas and find a quiet place to take a ten-minute introvert break.

But just because introverts don't like small talk doesn't mean they don't like to talk at all. They just want their conversations to be meaningful. (Remember, they've got a limited energy budget, so they want the most bang for their buck.) Generally speaking, then, introverts are drawn to conversations about ideas -- especially ideas that are already important to them. But they can also be genuinely interested in the ideas that make others tick, especially if such people are unabashedly enthusiastic about their passions. Seeing someone just light up about a concept that makes him or her happy is an experience well worth expending one's limited energy on, at least by my lights.

Introverts are opinionated (sometimes very opinionated, if my own example is any indication), but often won't venture to make comment unless someone asks first. So be the one who asks. Just be prepared for anything; many introverts are philomaths and are full of wide-ranging, interesting tidbits they've soaked up during their downtime. (Oh yeah, and if you want to be a mighty juggernaut at Trivial Pursuit team games, get their contact information! AND LO, YE SHALL BE THE UNSTOPPABLE INFOMANIACS!)

Oh, and another thing: some introverts have a tough time making prolonged eye contact during conversations. This doesn't mean they're not interested in what you have to say. Introverts tend to have an easier time making eye contact when they're relaxed; this tends to happen most often with people they've known for a while, or people whom they trust. Give them time. Meanwhile, take confidence in the knowledge that if an introvert deliberately chooses to continue a conversation with you, he or she is interested -- eye contact or no eye contact.

Some of my friends are introverts, so I'm going to be the one who asks: what's the best way for someone to engage you in conversation without making you want to hyperventilate and retreat to a locked room somewhere?


teri said...

AH! I'd never made the Trivial Pursuits/Jeopardy connection before... oh how much wisdom you impart!

Soozcat said...

Heh. I don't think I'm particularly wise... just happen to know a fair number of introverts with a thing for soaking up and retaining information. It's a natural fit for trivia games.

MarieC said...

"how 'bout them Mariners" exhausts EVERYONE's energy reserves these days! Ha ha. :-)

Soozcat said...

The only response is "How 'BOUT 'em? Know anyone who wants 'em?" ;)

Cailean said...

Great writing! As an introvert who sometimes tries to pretend to be an extrovert, this is spot on.

Soozcat said...

Thanks, Cailean!

My hubby can fake extraversion pretty well -- it's a side effect of growing up in a military family -- but his true introvert nature shows itself when he makes himself scarce at parties. Unless they're very small and quiet parties. :)