This post is for that 30-40% of the U.S. population who are introverts. [Not sure if you’re an introvert or an extrovert? Take this online assessment to find out.] Yep, I’m writing to YOU. It’s an extroverted world in many ways, isn’t it? That’s why you feel so uncomfortable so much of the time. But your life is calling.
I was standing in the “express” lane at Walmart the other day, and the longer line that I had just left in favor of a shorter line was making a lot of progress while my line — wasn’t. And then it happened. The woman ahead of me turned around and commented about the line being slow. Now on nearly every other day except this one, I would have nodded and said either, “Yeah,” or else nothing at all, and then looked down at the floor, indicating I had nothing to say. That is how introverts often handle small talk with strangers — awkwardly, and probably often leaving the other person feeling snubbed. I’m pretty sure things like that are the reason why so many extroverts think we introverts are rude or arrogant. But introverts, we know the truth: we’re just scared to death.
This day was different. The woman had turned and made her comment. I was getting ready to look at the floor and dismiss her when my life flashed in front of my eyes. I thought about all those awkward first days of class from grade school through grad school, and how people had clustered into groups and started making small talk and getting to know each other right away. And I saw myself shrinking down into my seat, hoping no one would notice me or talk to me, afraid that if anyone talked to me and I talked back I would say something stupid and everyone would laugh. And just as quickly I thought about how within a few weeks those same students were all friends with each other, and I was still very much alone. Then I remember wishing that someone would reach out to me, feeling like I could never break into these groups of friends. And I thought about how in spite of how badly I wanted to connect, I just pretended like I didn’t care. I thought about my 25th class reunion and how many really wonderful, beautiful people I had had a chance to know for so many years and just didn’t try, because of my shyness. All of this took an instant. And so instead of blowing this kind woman off, I decided to try to engage her.
I replied with a comment of my own about the slow line. It was the most hilarious thing anyone has ever said. Okay, it was every bit as mundane as the comment she had made, and I felt almost as stupid as I had feared I would. But the woman didn’t seem to think I was stupid. In fact the man behind me overheard my comment, and then he made a comment of his own, and suddenly all three of us were having a conversation. This was a first for me. Normally I’d have looked at the floor and said little or nothing, and the woman would have made her next comment to the man behind me, and the two of them would have ended up talking while I stood there feeling foolish. But there I was. Part of things. Not on the outside looking in, like I have been my whole life.
And then we all held hands and sang Silent Night. Okay, we didn’t. And I still felt stupid. The entire time. Because while this kind of conversation is awkward even for a lot of extroverts, it is excruciating for introverts. But I learned something important from this exchange. While I had spent most of my life feeling a bit contemptuous about the extroverts who seemed shallow enough to actually talk about the weather, or how slow the line was moving, most of them probably didn’t really care much about that stuff after all. Most of them had simply realized (probably at a very young age) that there is a certain price you pay for trying to connect with other people. You might say something stupid. You might be rejected. But probably you’ll just end up making some friends, even if only for a moment while you wait in a boring line.
The woman ahead of me finally got through the line and as she was leaving, I said, “Merry Christmas — have a great night.” She said, “You know, you’re every bit as stupid as I suspected you were.” Okay, not really. She said, “Merry Christmas to you too.” I ended up seeing her again in the parking lot as we were pulling out, and we nodded at one another and smiled. [I know extroverts must be reading this thinking I am the most socially inept person who has ever lived, but this is the life and experience of many introverts. This is what most of us struggle with.]
So I just wanted to write this post for those of you who share my pain, my fellow introverts. Those who, like Johnny Carson, Johnny Depp, David Letterman, and many other people (often creative types), can function fine one on one and maybe even be charming and charismatic in large groups, but who struggle to make friends, to engage in casual conversation. I just wanted to let you know your life is calling. So is mine.
Our fears don’t have to define us. We know that giving in to that urge to look at the floor is going to leave us feeling isolated and disconnected down the road when everyone else is enjoying connection and friendship. So from one introvert to another, I just want to encourage you to speak up. Say something — anything. It’s fine to let the extroverts start the conversations — they usually will. But when they reach out to you, reach back. You are grown up now. You’re no longer the kid in the corner wearing huge baggy pants, or headgear, or Huskies. Adults are forgiving in ways kids often aren’t. Most adults have suffered a little, have felt left out from time to time, and are more forgiving of differences that don’t really matter.
Introverts, your life is calling. If through this post, I can encourage even one of you to reach out, to talk back, to engage someone who is trying to engage you, then it was worth it. You will experience it as a thrill, as a release from this prison of shyness that has held you all your life. Just try it. If you do (or recently have), please let me know in the comments section below.