I don’t know about you, but as an introvert, I seem to have two modes of conversation: I spew all the thoughts that have built up in my head or I say hardly anything at all. In Mode #1, I give the false impression that I’m an extrovert. In Mode #2, people wonder if I’m upset or bored. Sometimes people ask if I’m okay, to which I reply, confused, “Yeah, I’m fine.” Other times they comment on how quiet I am—but this just makes me feel even more self-conscious.
So what’s really going on when I’m quiet? Here’s what might be happening:
1. I can’t think of anything to say. I really can’t. My mind has gone blank and the silence that is stretching out awkwardly is simply serving to intensify my mind paralysis. I have so many thoughts—or do I have none at all? I can’t tell. Those thoughts take the form of images, hunches, emotions, and fragments of phrases, but sometimes they just don’t coalesce into words.
2. I’m focused on something else. How should I delicately word this email so I don’t sound like a jerk? What should I order for dinner? When I’m trying to think through something, I go silent. I turn inward and attend to my own thoughts. It’s hard for me to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, because my brain seems made to dive deep and focus intensely. Give me a few minutes to finish my mental task, and then I’ll be talking again.
3. Group conversations are too much. Everyone is talking. There are too many people here. It’s so loud. What did you say? This conversation is moving fast and there’s no time for me to think. I’m sick of small talk—I wish I could find one person to talk to in a meaningful way.
4. There’s an interesting world inside my head. As an introvert, I’m a natural observer. I observe people, relationships, nature, situations—everything. Whatever I see and hear and experience enters my mind and stays there for a while. Some people label this behavior “overthinking” (and yes, sometimes I do get stuck on negative thoughts). But to me, thinking is what I do best. But I can’t talk and reflect at the same time.
5. I don’t feel like you respect my ideas. This happens to me every once in a while. I’m sure it happens to both introverts and extroverts. But sometimes I feel like it’s not worth bringing up something I care about because I don’t think the other person will get it. Maybe I talked about something personal but the other person made me feel stupid for opening up to them. I felt worse after talking to them, not better. This means I will become quieter and quieter around that person.
6. Actually, I’m not fine. Something bad happened. I’m upset. I didn’t get the job or I got in a fight with my boyfriend. Maybe everything just seems to be going wrong today. But I don’t want to talk about The Problem right now. I need to think about it for a while. Probably later—once I’ve had time to process—I’ll talk.
7. I’m politely trying to end this conversation but the other person isn’t getting the hint. Ok, enough! Stop! I like to listen, but not this much. I get especially annoyed when people repeat themselves. Or when the conversation is just a list of complaints. I’m about to do the un-introvert thing and interrupt you!
8. I’m tired. I promise I’m not upset with you, I just didn’t sleep well last night. My mind is foggy, my body feels gross, and I’m struggling to make it through the day. I have limited “people” energy on a normal day, but today I’m running on empty.
9. I was daydreaming. Sorry! What did you say?
10. I’m peopled out. The weekend was too busy. I’ve been under siege at work, school, and home and I haven’t gotten enough alone time. I want to be alone, or with just one other trusted person like my significant other. I just don’t feel like myself. I need time to focus on my own thoughts and feelings and fill myself back up mentally and emotionally. Trust me, after a few hours (or days) to myself, I’ll be bubbling over with things to say—I’ll be back in Mode #1.
When an introvert is quiet, don’t assume he is depressed, snobbish or socially deficient. — Laurie Helgoe, Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman