There I was, a 20-year-old college student sitting across the table from a young man my age in a campus burger bar, deep in intense conversation. We were talking about god. I was describing issues of faith, theology, and morality that were pressing on me at the time. He was sharing stories about struggles with his own childhood church, and I was fascinated. His experience in a different church at a different age was opening up a whole new dimension to my understanding.
Then all of a sudden, mid-sentence, he stopped talking. His serious expression was gone, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. After an initial instant of confusion, I noticed he was not looking at me anymore, but was staring right past me.
“Toooo n yyyyy!” came a voice from behind. I turned around to see several other guys standing behind me. By this time, Tony had risen to his feet and was glad-handing and high-fiving them. An explosion of “How ya doin’?” “What’s up?” and “Where ya been?” disintegrated into laughter, hamming, and inside jokes.
To my great dismay, the Tony I had just been talking to, who had been recounting his deepest beliefs and most personal childhood traumas, had vanished in a flash. He had been replaced by a cackling, back-slapping Tony with an impenetrable mask of jocularity.
Meanwhile, I had completely disappeared. I no longer mattered, and neither did god, the universe, and man’s place in it. All that mattered was this dance, this ritual they were doing among themselves.
All that mattered was the banter.
I waited, naively hoping that it would end, that they would leave us alone, and that our conversation could continue. But it wasn’t to be.
No one even noticed me leaving.
Here Comes the Banter
I can’t count how many times I’ve had this same kind of experience, and every time I’m left with the same feelings of humiliation and frustration. In our hyper-extroverted society, banter reigns supreme. It trumps any news, conversation, or crisis that may precede it.
Is your team talking about some serious office politics that might affect your project tomorrow? It’s almost a given that in less than five minutes, someone will interrupt or crack a joke and hijack the conversation into an explosion of banter. Are you in the final rehearsal for your stage play, with eyes on the clock and in heavy debate about how to make changes to a scene? Look out, here comes the banter. Are you in a group that has 5 minutes to decide which movie to see at the theater?
Donning the Happy Mask
Fast forward some years, and I’m sitting in an employee cafeteria across from a coworker. She’s choking back tears, pouring her heart out to me about a crisis with her mentally ill son and how it’s tearing apart her family. I’m telling her about a possible solution that worked for someone else in a similar situation, when I realize she’s not listening. She’s looking right past me.
Happy mask, greeting rituals, banter. Followed by a much more important conversation about fingernail polish and errands.
She never got back to me to ask about my idea for her son.
Small Talk, the Invincible Foe
I’d like to come up with a spiffy little list of ways I’ve learned to cope with this phenomenon, but honestly, I don’t have one. Living in a society that values small talk and banter over meaningful conversation, and masked rituals over genuine connection, I feel like I’m living in a forest full of thorn bushes and all I can do is try to avoid getting scratched.
I’ve learned to be choosy about who I open up to, who I allow to open up to me, and where these conversations take place. And I’m grateful for those I find who share my need for focus and meaning.
One thing I’ve learned about banter is that fighting it is almost impossible. It would be easier for a policeman to hold back the tide than for an introvert to rescue a conversation from the onset of banter! Banter can be rude, distracting, and a death blow to any agenda originally under discussion.
So forget mindless banter. Let’s go deep.
In an Introvert’s Perfect World
But really, if I were all-powerful, I wouldn’t ban banter altogether — because there’s nothing inherently wrong with some light-hearted fun. Sometimes in the right circumstances, I indulge in it myself. Instead, I’d design a code of etiquette that would knock banter off it’s current all-superior perch and assign it a more appropriate place.
In my ideal world, banter would not take priority over a real or time-sensitive conversation. Interrupting and hijacking deep or urgent conversations would be recognized for the rudeness that it is. The situation and the needs and feelings of all present would become more important in how and when we talk to each other.
In short, instead of automatically launching into banter, good manners would require that we take just a second to first make sure it was appropriate for the occasion.
Banter could no longer be the bull that crashes into every china shop.
Make Room for Introverts
Of course, I’m not all-powerful, and introverts like me don’t control the larger culture. But what I’m wishing for is not a take-over that forces everyone to abide by the preferences of my quiet temperament. I’m not calling for any ban on small talk or frivolous fun. What I want is an understanding that not everyone thinks, feels, and talks with the same needs and assumptions.
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My wish is for a culture that’s inclusive of people over the entire spectrum of temperament. This inclusion would require some give and take by everyone — a give and take that we currently don’t have. It would be a culture that doesn’t automatically assign equal significance to every topic and every discussion and treat them all as opportunities for light entertainment.
I don’t wish to kill banter, ban small talk, or regulate the way anyone prefers to relate to others. I just want our cultural etiquette to make some room for those of us who relate and converse differently.
As an introvert, what I long for is acknowledgement and consideration.