Why introverts shudder at the thought of making small talk over the holidays

So the holidays are almost upon us. Chances are you’ll soon be sitting around a big table with your loved ones, eating and drinking and giving thanks. All that revelry sounds great until you realize that dinner will also be served with a heaping bowl of small talk. You’re an introvert, and meaningless chit chat makes you cringe.

Why do introverts dislike small talk so much? This guy waywardly argues that if introverts were better at it, we wouldn’t despise it so much. But this reasoning is only partially true at best. Although small talk is a skill that can be practiced and refined just like any other skill — like learning to play an instrument or perfecting your made-from-scratch pie crust — this doesn’t explain why introverts loathe small talk in the first place. The real reason introverts shudder at the thought of talking with Aunt Gertrude about this year’s predicted snowfall goes deeper than that.

What’s really happening is introverts are drained by small talk because it feels fake and pointless. When you exchange pleasantries or chat about the weather, you don’t actually learn anything about Aunt Gertrude. You’ve filled the air with empty words to avoid silence but have not actually connected with your conversation partner. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, asserts that small talk actually blocks honest interaction. “Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people,” she writes in her book. “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

Along with feeling meaningless, small talk saps an introvert’s limited “people” energy. Imagine that we walk around with an invisible battery inside us that contains all our juice for social interaction. When we start the day, the battery is probably close to full (if we’ve had enough downtime). Throughout the day, our battery gains or loses energy, depending on the situation. We talk to a good friend about a topic that interests us, and zip! our battery is topped off with good feelings and energy. We make awkward small talk with an overly chatty family member for a long time and slurch! our juice level dips.

Author Diane Cameron aptly states, “introverts crave meaning, so party chitchat feels like sandpaper to our psyche.” Or like the depleting of valuable, limited energy.

The bad news is there’s probably no way to completely avoid chit chat this holiday season, unless you want to earn the reputation of being a social Grinch. Small talk does have a social benefit — it makes us appear friendly and approachable and can open the door to deeper conversation. Holiday table talk aside, if you never shoot the breeze, you’ll never make a new friend, go on a first date, close a business deal, or get along with your co-workers. Small talk makes the social wheel go round.

The key to making small talk less draining is to steer the conversation toward topics that are actually interesting (the sooner the better). Things we introverts like talking about. Conversations that fill our batteries not drain them.

So what do introverts like talking about? Ideas, ideas, ideas. Helgoe writes in Introvert Power, “Introverts are energized and excited by ideas. Simply talking about people, what they do and who they know, is noise for the introvert. He’ll be looking between the lines for some meaning, and this can be hard work! Before long, he’ll be looking for a way out of the conversation.”

Here are some more tips to make your table talk more tolerable this holiday season:

1. Summon your natural curiosity. We introverts love delving deep, learning about topics that interest us, and figuring out what makes others tick. Use your curiosity to ask follow-up questions about things that interest you.

2. Take the spotlight off yourself. Introverts tend to be private people who don’t feel comfortable disclosing a lot of personal information right away. Meaning, you probably won’t tell Aunt Gertrude about your latest existential crisis until you make a meaningful connection with her. Take the pressure off yourself and get her talking by asking questions about her life.

3. Embellish your responses. Of course, if you relentlessly bombard your conversation partner with questions, it will feel like an interrogation. Eventually it will be your turn to talk. Don’t cut the conversation short by saying just one-word answers. (“How are you?” “Fine.”) Include some interesting tidbits in your responses so you provide “hooks” for the other person to continue the conversation. For example, when someone asks how you are, say “Good, thanks — I jogged on my favorite trail this morning and I’m feeling energized!” Or, “Good, although with the holidays just around the corner, I’m feeling stressed about all the shopping I have to do.”

4. Go deep with open-ended questions. Open-ended questions invite the other person to say more than just a few words. Try things like:

  • “Are you working on anything exciting lately?”
  • “What’s your opinion of [insert recent issue in the news lately]?” (Be prepared for the possibility of controversy.)
  • “What was the highlight of your weekend?”

The holidays can be a great time for reflecting on your life. Consider asking something like:

  • “Do you think you are you the same person you were last year at this time? How has your life changed?”
  • “When you were a kid, what was your dream job? Is any part of that still true?”
  • “What’s something you’ve learned about yourself lately?”

5. Be done. When your social battery gets low, give yourself permission to call it quits. Wrap up the conversation by saying something like, “I’m glad we got the chance to catch up. Hope all goes well with [mention something you talked about].” Later, when you’ve been at the party for a few hours and you notice yourself starting to feel foggy or cranky, don’t tough it out. Be kind to yourself and give yourself what you need. Grab one last hunk of turkey, then head home for some quiet recharge time.

Small talk: accomplished. Introvert, you deserved that extra slice of pie.

Everybody talks, but there is no conversation. ―Dejan Stojanovic, The Sun Watches the Sun

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Read this: 21 Undeniable Signs That You’re an Introvert