On The Nature of Introverts Vol. 1

So the other day I was talking to a close friend whom I get along with really well. We’re both quite similar in terms of personality, which I think helps to make conversing and catching up a lot easier between us.

We each are introverted and are therefore quite aware of the different ways in which an unchecked social situation can drain people like us, sometimes rapidly depending on the particular circumstance, and so we each have a mutual respect for each other’s head space in a conversation. We know how to converse in a way that stimulates energetic discussion in each other but crucially without creating an energy vacuum that can work against the progress of the social situation. Even better, we know how to do so without making the conversation seem contrived or inorganic, which is a rare quality when it comes to conversations held between two inward-facing characters.

For example – we are both quite aware that for an introvert, energy is gained through solitary activities such as meditation, listening to music, watching movies, or reading a book. We both know that these are the conditions under which our personality type thrives. Any activity that is solitary and creates the circumstance where the participant can be alone with their thoughts and the quiet creates the optimum circumstances for re-energizing. This is like putting an introvert on charge.

The other side of this is that we both know that social situations are a slow but constant and real drain on our working energy levels. So when either of us abruptly ceases the conversation at any point and mentions something along the lines of needing to be alone to do ‘introvert things’, neither of us takes offense. This is just standard protocol for us and we know it.

A refreshing perspective on an anecdote which, in the hands of the wrong person, can contribute towards the social stigma attached to being an introvert.

From what I’ve been told by extroverts, the opposite is true for the other extreme of this particular personality spectrum. For extroverts, energy seems to stem from the circumstances of being around people, being in a social situation, and just generally has a lot of stuff going on in their immediate perception. That seems to be the charger for extroverts. By the way – correct me if I’m wrong about this, as I’m very interested in expanding my knowledge about how the world is constructed in the eyes of an extrovert.

The extroverts that revealed these details to me noted that the circumstances I outlined to them which seemed to re-charge me personally as an introvert (mentioned above) were precisely the things that seem to drain their energy levels.

I pointed out that the opposite was true for me, and we laughed at the realization.

As an aside – I really enjoy encounters like this with individuals different from myself; coming from different backgrounds and experiences, and being able to share in each other’s contrasting mental models of the world without judgment. Just acknowledging that we’re both different and experiencing that contrast between us, without arrogantly slapping a label on the situation.

Anyway, to get back on track, this is not to say that I dislike social situations, it’s more that I can only enjoy them for so long before I feel an anxious, almost claustrophobic need to plug in some headphones and get some private head space. Sometimes it is a very noticeable shift in energy levels, sometimes it’s quite gradual. Usually a telltale sign is that, at some point in the conversation, my focus will shift without warning entirely inwards; sometimes without consciously realizing it. The only way of knowing that it’s happened is when the other person has very obviously asked a question and you’re there stuck for an answer because you’ve been unable to process the last volley of conversation due to being in your own head.

This is when I know the energy tank is on low. ‘Time to wrap this up’ is usually the thought that flashes into my mind at this point, and I make inroads to ceasing the immediate social situation.

Do note that this is not the selfish sentiment of ‘you’re draining my energies so I’m out’; it is more that if my energy levels are low that will readily impact the quality of the conversation I have with the other party. And if I am lucky enough to engage with conversation with anyone – as I believe everyone has interesting stories – I want to be sure that I can readily and respectfully hold up my end of the conversation to give them a landing for their thoughts & ideas, so that they can be socially nourished from the exchange.

There are also select instances in which the drain-rate of a social situation will take on a multiple; in other words, in these situations energy levels drain especially faster than normal for us. Now this is entirely my own experience; I don’t know whether other introverts notice this.

Usually for me this is when a conversation takes on a one-sided quality, wherein the other conversationalist takes over most (if not all) of the conversation. This is a particularly sensitive situation, as I am quite aware that being a quiet individual gives off the impression that I want to be talked at, rather than talked with (which is not true).

And yes I know that as I am a rather meek conversationalist, it does mean that when people – most of whom are accustomed to having to verbally batter down other people to get their point across – encounter someone like myself, something switches in their brain: ‘wow, I don’t have to fight so much to talk to this person. I can unload all my thoughts, and he will just listen. And since he’s listening, he’s probably going to absorb and take in all the information and integrate it into his life. Making me feel like I’ve achieved something and influenced someone. Thereby putting my stamp on the world!’ (by the way – not true. If I tune out of a conversation, I’ve usually got a cartoon playing in my head. I know how to play the affirmative front without much mental investment).

It is not good enough as an excuse to rant at someone simply because they offer no conversational resistance. It is quite frankly a lazy, arrogant, and disrespectful show of ego-stroking which, trust me, is all too obvious to the supposedly blank person sat opposite you as you continue to mentally vomit. What irritates me most about this is that it is an infectious conversational disease – I’m ashamed to say that I’m guilty of plaguing personal friends with this myself too.

For reader’s interest: if you are ever concerned that you yourself are in this situation, here is a simple test: assuming a one-on-one conversation with someone that you know but aren’t really close with, if you feel that for any significant part of the conversation that you could be replaced with a perfect replica of yourself, that robotically and systematically spits out an affirmative phrase (“mmm”, “yes”, “uh huh”, “yup”) at off-beats in the conversation, then you’re probably in a one-sided conversation.

It also works from the speaker’s point of view; if the person you’re talking to falls into this patterned and repetitive response cycle, then find a way to engage them in a way that interests them as they are likely tuning out. Ask for their opinion. Or else, drop the conversation topic altogether and start with something simple that redirects the conversational light away from yourself, or onto the other person. If they’ve tuned out it is usually as the topic doesn’t whet their conversational appetite (and likely has whetted yours far too much). By the way – that’s not them being a picky conversationalist. That’s just them expecting a fair conversation which engages and interests all parties in equal amounts – which is what it should be. (Ever wondered why you get that sudden feeling of irritation when you’re in the company of people who very openly talk about some obscure esoteric inside joke that only applies to them? Same issue).

Instead: “What did you think of ______ in the news the other day?” “What did you think of that movie you saw last week?”

Or if you really want to engage them: “how was your week?” “what did you get up to today?” Demonstrate to the other person that you’re not solely invested in talking about yourself in the conversation. Conversations are a back and forth rally, not an oration on life from your point of view.

Remember – it is as much true for yourself as it is for others: as individuals we are all the protagonist of our own stories. Meaning, we go about the world engaging with life insofar as to progress the narrative of our own lives, and so our experiences take on the shape of a story rather than a series of unrelated events that just happened to occur to us, and we start to attach meaning to things that happen to us. Our number one favorite thing to do as a species is to find obscure patterns in unrelated matters to construct meaning in our lives, just look at superstition for example.

That means that your interest in that weirdly obscure but perfectly ordinary thing that happened to you last Tuesday afternoon, probably is not the most appealing thing for the other person to hear right now. Because they do not have the perspective on the issue that you do, as they are not the protagonist of your story, and therefore that odd thing that happened does not contain the same weight and significance for them. Now, you have two choices, you can spend the next 10 minutes going into detail as to why that thing is significant to you, likely traversing through a while life history plagued with other similar experiences that signal significance to you alone. Or, you can keep the conversation light and choose to talk about something that interests both of you. You wouldn’t be blamed if the tables were turned and you tuned out when they started talking about a similarly mundane detail of their life, yet we’re all too happy to plague others with monologues of the epic tale that is Our Life, and rant at other people about why it was weird that Susan said something to us in a certain way that reminded us of that one time in which our weird Aunt back in 2001 did this one thing which looked really funny cause she was wearing an odd dress that made us think ‘wow that looks a bit odd’ which it really was and it was like she was…………(you get what I mean).

For me these situations are rather sensitive as the individuals that hold me conversationally hostage like this usually come from a background where they probably haven’t had much chance to express themselves as individuals in their day to day life, which is very unfortunate. Or at least they haven’t yet found healthy ways of expressing themselves. So I rationalize that I should listen and be an ear for them, and I am usually happy to help. But at the same time I usually resign myself to the fact that I will come out of it spectacularly drained, and devoid of functional energy for the next few hours unless I take a nap or meditate.

Introverts operate differently. We need our alone time to re-charge and be content with the world around us before we can re-engage effectively with it. If you want to tread respectfully around introverts – and indeed everyone in life to be frank – don’t assume anything about them. Ask. Just ask. It’s so simple, and can save a lot of headaches for all parties. Don’t arrogantly assume you know what they’re thinking because your story of yourself puts you as someone ‘who is good at reading people’, ask them about it. Chances are you’re way off with your assumptions and you probably can’t read people as well as you think you can. How can you be so up yourself to assume that you know someone else better than they do? Stop the narcissistic ego-stroking and ask them if you aren’t sure about something in their head space. It may not be the entire answer, it is the straightest, most honest first step to uncovering the truth about where there head is in any particular situation. You know why? Because it comes FROM THEM. And most importantly, not from you.



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