It was my first year of college. The sophomore in the dorm room across the hall from mine had invited me to dinner. She was outgoing, loud, and blunt—the kind of person who would say anything to anyone. In hindsight, she was probably an extrovert.
At the restaurant, we ordered an appetizer. She asked me where I was from (Minnesota) and what my major was (writing)—you know, all the usual, get-to-know-you college small talk. I thought our first “friend date” was going well, as well as it could for a shy, awkward introvert like me.
What’s your personality type? Knowing your type can help you leverage your natural strengths. Take the free test from our partner Personality Hacker.
But then, she said something that hurt and surprised me:
“You’re actually a really cool person. When I first met you, you hardly said anything, so I thought you were kind of a bitch.”
Kind of a bitch. She tossed off the words as coolly as if she had just informed me that my mozzarella sticks had arrived. Oddly, I think she meant it as a compliment.
I didn’t know what to say. I froze then uttered a weak “haha, thanks.” I tried to pretend like everything was still cool, but in reality, her words wounded me. I’d never thought of myself as a rude person. Sure, I was quiet and kept to myself on campus. I often spent Friday nights lying in bed reading books from my classes that I found interesting. I had a boyfriend and a few close friends, and they were all I needed to fill my social quota. I’d never thought my introverted ways were seen as bitchy by others.
Sadly, my neighbor would not be the last person to tell me they thought I was rude or stuck-up because I was quiet.
‘I’ve Been Accused of Being an Arrogant Prick’
I wanted to know if other introverts have experienced something similar, so I asked members of the Introvert, Dear Facebook group if their introversion has ever been confused for rudeness. Here are some of their responses:
“I have been accused of being an arrogant prick for avoiding small talk and favoring solitude.” —Leilani
“After high school, when I would happen to meet someone I hadn’t seen since high school, it inevitably would be said that they thought I was stuck up or bitchy. I’d often ask, ‘Why, did I say something rude to you?’ And it would turn out that no, I didn’t, but because I often sat alone and read or had headphones on, people assumed I thought I was superior to them. That baffled me. I certainly didn’t want to be in with the ‘in’ crowd, but I also didn’t actively dislike most people. Mostly I was just busy with my books and music and such.” —Allison H.
“Others have accused me of being a snob, unfriendly, boring, or selfish. I actually hear ‘selfish’ a lot from my in-laws. None are true about me.” —Mia
Why Introverts Get Labeled as Rude
It turns out it’s not uncommon for quiet introverts to be labeled as rude—or worse—even though we’re not trying to be. There are several reasons behind this. One reason is we tend to keep to ourselves. I couldn’t think of a time I had been blatantly rude to my extroverted neighbor. But I had probably passed her many times in the hallway before we had dinner together, and because I was in my own little introverted world, I hadn’t gone out of my way to chat.
Another reason is our “social bucket” gets filled quickly. Introverts don’t need a lot of social activities, or a huge entourage of friends, to be fulfilled socially. A few meaningful relationships are enough. Extroverts, on the other hand, seem to need more socializing than introverts to fill their buckets. So, if my bucket is full, I won’t feel compelled to start conversations with random people.
Just as our social bucket can be filled quickly, we can also lose social energy quickly. Making small talk with acquaintances, hanging out in large groups, or simply being in an office or classroom all day and being aware of all the people around us—these things can wear us out. If we’re on empty—or worse, if we’re experiencing an introvert hangover—we’re probably scurrying home as quickly as possible to be alone to recharge. We won’t make a pit stop to make small talk, which would further drain our energy.
There are many other reasons. Introverts dislike small talk because it feels inauthentic; we’d rather talk about something meaningful. Scientifically speaking, introverts are less motivated by rewards, so we’re just not as energized as extroverts to make new acquaintances. Finally, some of us suffer from Resting Bitch Face (or, for others, Resting Sad Face), so by default we look angry, cold, or rude.
What I Wish I Would Have Said
Instead of laughing uncomfortably and mumbling “thanks,” I wish I would have put on my big girl pants and said something like this to my extroverted neighbor:
“Excuse me, why would you say that to me? How do you think it makes me feel to be called a bitch? Even though you think I’m ‘cool’ now, it still hurts that you once saw me in such a negative way.
The truth is I’m an introvert. I’m selective about who I let into my inner circle. This isn’t rude; I just have limited energy for socializing, so I have to be picky about who I spend my time with. When you first saw me in the hallway and I didn’t make a lot of small talk, it wasn’t because I thought I was better than you. I may have been tired or simply wanting to be alone, uninterrupted, with my own thoughts.
It takes me a while to warm up to new people. I’m not going to spill my whole life story the first time I meet someone. If I seem a little guarded at first, I’m just getting to know you and figuring out if I can trust you. The closer we get, the more I’ll open up to you. It has nothing to do with rudeness. It’s careful and smart.”
Don’t Call Me Rude
Before you assume that a quiet person is rude, ask yourself if there could be something else going on. People are quiet for many reasons. That person might be having a bad day (we all do sometimes) or be tired. Or, they could be a shy introvert like me who needs time to warm up to new people. Be kind to that quiet person. Life is hard enough—we don’t need to make it harder by judging each other unfairly.
Explore more introvert misconceptions in Jenn Granneman’s upcoming book, “The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World,” which will be out August 2017.