I’m Not Being Rude, I’m Just Being Quiet

It was my first year of college, and the sophomore in the dorm room across the hall from me 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 appetizers, and she asked me where I was from (Minnesota) and what my major was (writing)—all the usual get-to-know-you small talk. I thought our first “friend date” was going well, as well as it could for a socially awkward introvert like me. But then she said something that shocked 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. In some twisted way, 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 okay, but in reality, her words wounded me. Sure, I was quiet. I 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. I was just doing my own thing.

Being Called ‘Rude’ Is a Common Introvert Problem

Turns out, being called bitchy, rude, or aloof is a common introvert problem. “I have been accused of being an arrogant prick for avoiding small talk and favoring solitude,” Leylani, an introvert who I interviewed for The Secret Lives of Introverts, tells me. “I’ve been called ‘ice queen,’ ” Anne, another introvert, says. “Also, many people have told me, ‘You scared me when I first met you’ because I didn’t smile all the time.” Allison adds, “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.” She would ask them if she had ever said something rude to them. “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.”

To this day, I can’t think of a time when I had been outright rude to my dormmate. I’d never insulted her, walked away when she was talking, or anything of the sort. What had probably happened was I’d passed her several times in the hallway, before we were friends, and hadn’t said much. I definitely didn’t stick my hand out and exclaim, “Hi, I’m Jenn! How’s your day going?” I didn’t see this as being rude. I was simply keeping to myself.

And herein lies the problem. Our reserved nature gets us in trouble. We don’t bubble over with pleasantries, so we get accused of being unfriendly. We don’t blab our life story to people we’ve just met, so we get accused of being aloof. But introverts don’t see life as one big cocktail party. We’re content with just a few meaningful relationships. We’re not constantly scanning the environment, looking to add more fans to our entourage.

As we go through the day, we’re likely in our heads. Shalima, another introvert who has been accused of being rude, tells me, “When your mind is screaming at you with thoughts and ideas coming at you all at once, it’s hard to be loud.” Or we’re simply observing our surroundings, as introverts tend to do. Amy says, “Quiet doesn’t equal mad, sad, rude, bitchy, arrogant, or stuck-up. Quiet does equal people-watching, observing, and enjoying life . . . quietly.”

What I Wish I Would Have Said

When my extroverted dormmate called me a bitch, I wish I’d spoken up. I wish I would have told her not to make assumptions about someone who is quiet. A person can be quiet for many reasons. They might be an introvert who needs time to warm up to new people. They might be turned inward at the moment, enjoying the thoughts in their private inner world. Or that quiet person may simply be content with silence. Don’t be too quick to judge.

Today, I make a point of saying hello when I pass neighbors in the hallway of my apartment building. When I’m in the right mood, I even engage in some back-and-forth (“Hey, I like your coat! Where’d you get it?”). But I probably won’t hang around having a fifteen-minute conversation that started with “How ’bout this weather?” (Unless it’s snowing, of course, which in that case is the only thing we Minnesotans want to talk about.) And I probably won’t spontaneously invite anyone in for tea.

I’m okay with that.

The Secret Lives of Introverts has been called “a decoder ring for introverts” and one of the “best books” on “introvert empowerment.” You can pre-order it now on Amazon.

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Jenn Granneman is the founder of IntrovertDear.com and the author of The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World. She also cohosts The Introvert, Dear Podcast and blogs for Psychology Today. For most of her life, Jenn felt weird, different, and out of place because of her quiet ways. She writes about introversion because she doesn’t want other introverts to feel the way she did.