Thanks in part to books like Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the world is finally learning what introversion is. But if you’re an introvert like me, you still feel subtle pressure to act more extroverted. It’s like people know what the definition of introversion is, but they still want introverts to act like extroverts.
That pressure comes from all sides: teachers told me to speak up in class more. My extroverted friend sighs audibly when I say I want to stay in tonight. Co-workers marvel at the fact that I like eating lunch alone.
People often mistakenly think I’d be happier if I acted more extroverted—so they try to “fix” me by encouraging me to perk up, speak up, and go out more. But the answer isn’t for introverts to fight their nature but rather to work with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying introverts are “special snowflakes” and they should be coddled or tiptoed around. But many people don’t realize that the offhand things they say to introverts can end up making them feel self-conscious. Introverts might start believing there’s really something wrong with them and retreat into their “shells” even more.
I can’t speak for all introverts, but I bet many introverts would agree they wish people wouldn’t say or imply things like this:
1. “Why are you so quiet?”
We already know we’re quiet—we’ve been hearing this our whole lives. Sometimes people replace the word “quiet” with “shy” but the effect is still the same.
Pointing out our quietness makes us feel self-conscious. It’s like dragging one of our perceived flaws on stage when we were trying to keep it bound and gagged in the other room, hoping you wouldn’t notice. We feel our quietness has harmed us at certain times, like when we tried to woo a date or impress a potential employer on a job interview. It’s something we’ve tried to overcome, but we’re naturally more internal than external, so we’ve gotten mixed results. Would you be embarrassed if we pointed out that you talk a lot?
If you want us to open up, ask us questions to draw us out. Introverts crave connections with others, but sometimes we have trouble starting conversations. Once you get us talking about a topic we care about, we may talk your ear off.
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2. “Get out of your head. You think too much.”
Thinking is what we do best. Never tell me not to think. As an introvert, my brain is my greatest asset and the most effective tool in my arsenal. I can focus alone for long periods of time, imagine many outcomes for any given scenario, and mull things over until I understand them deeply.
Introverts’ brains are actually designed for deep processing. When information enters an introvert’s brain, it travels a long, slow route through the brain, passing through areas related to long-term memory, planning, learning, and reasoning. Compare this to extroverts, who favor a shorter brain pathway that is linked to working memory and immediate action, explains Marti Olsen Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in an Extrovert World. So telling an introvert to stop thinking is like telling them to stop breathing.
3. “Spit it out!”
Do you know why introverts “umm” and “ahh” when they speak? And why they may take longer than extroverts to respond? It’s because introverts tend to use long-term memory more than short-term (“working”) memory, writes Laney. For extroverts, it’s the opposite.
Just like it sounds, long-term memory stores information for long periods of time. It takes longer to access long-term memory. When introverts are speaking, they have to reach into long-term memory to pull out just the right word. Compare this with working memory, which stores information “up front,” making it quickly accessible.
The best way to access long-term memory is to relax and let your mind wander for a moment. Telling introverts to “spit it out” or “hurry up and just say it” puts the pressure on, which just makes word retrieval harder.
4. “You should get out more.”
When people ask what I did last weekend and I didn’t have any big social plans, I’m tempted to make up something so I seem more “normal.” For me, often the best weekend plans (after a long work week) are no plans at all. As an introvert, downtime is crucial to my well-being. It’s how I relax and recharge. Extroverts need occasional downtime too, but introverts need more of it.
5. “Just wing it. It will be fine.”
We all remember that one extrovert in school who got up in front of the class, and although it was obvious he put minimal effort into his presentation, he charmed his way to an A. Meanwhile, nervous introverted students were studying their notes for the billionth time.
Not all introverts will agree with this one, but in general, introverts like being prepared, especially when something involves speaking or performing in front of others. If you’ve ever had someone tell you to just “wing” a class presentation, you may have felt a flood of panic. Speaking in front of others means all the attention is zeroed in on you. Planning what to say removes the pressure of having to think on the fly.
Wanting to feel prepared applies to social situations too. Introverts feel more comfortable when they know exactly who is going to the party, what to expect, and when it’s acceptable for them to leave. This helps us create a mental “map” of the situation and get into the right mindset for socializing.
6. “You’re not saying much. Are you okay?”
Just because I’m not talking doesn’t mean I’m angry, bored, or depressed. I probably just don’t have anything to say right now.
7. “If only you would come out of your shell.”
Introverts tend to be private and reserved, and that’s okay, writes Susan Cain in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: “You might have been prodded to come out of your shell—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter everywhere they go, and that some humans are just the same.” Interestingly, once an introvert feels comfortable with you, their shell cracks wide open and their true personality comes out.
8. “Just get over it.”
People say this when introverts express concerns about socializing or doing things that drain them. But being an introvert is about processing the world differently and creating energy by being alone. So introversion isn’t something we will ever really be “over.”
And we shouldn’t have to be.