They’re in your life but sometimes or rather, quite often, you don’t have a clue what’s going on in their head. You might not even think of your best friend, brother, wife, colleague, boss or student as an introvert, or you might have accepted it as one of their personality traits and left it at that. I don’t blame you- introverts are rarely truly understood by most people, even those that interact with them on a daily basis and unfortunately, there’s not much they can do about it. The most common opinions of introverts range from ‘shy’ and ‘quiet’ to the more extreme ‘reclusive’ or ‘unsocial’. As an introvert myself, I have to admit that it can be frustrating to explain this personality trait in a world that can seem like it was designed for social butterflies and those with the loudest voices. As someone who works in social media, this gets even trickier.
What Introverts Are Not
Sometimes, it’s easier to understand a concept better by defining what it’s not, so I’m going to attempt to undefine introversion. We introverts are not shy, aloof, reclusive, snobbish, indifferent, loners, or arrogant. We do not prefer to write in our diaries to having heart-to-heart conversations. We’re not pretending to be self-important either; attention is the last thing we want. We are perfectly capable and even enjoy deep, meaningful conversations, also with people we’ve just been introduced to. We are not completely pre-occupied with our own thoughts- we’re not as vain as we’re sometimes made out to be. We do not lack the confidence to approach strangers or talk to them. We do not lack confidence at all and we can totally rock our job interviews, even when we’re faced with an entire panel of interviewers. We do know how to tell a great story (even if we don’t always need to).
So Then Who Exactly Is An Introvert?
The word introvert literally means ‘to turn inward’ and if you can think of this as a natural tendency or an orientation, rather than a conscious carefully weighed decision, it’s easier to understand what it really means. Introverts are totally capable of enjoying social interaction and interesting conversations. But here’s the thing- they have a saturation point, beyond which constant company doesn’t only become boring as it does for non-introverts, but begins to drain their energies causing physical and mental exhaustion and complete misery.
Let me explain with an example.
Earlier this year, I attended a huge three-day travel networking conference (TBEX Europe 2015) for the first time. I was there on my own and did not personally know anyone. The power of networking in my current profession cannot be stressed enough and I was keen to attend this event because I knew I had a lot in common with other attendees. At the opening party, I got over my initial self-consciousness quite easily and walked around the event, introducing myself to complete strangers and mingling. I exchanged pleasantries, made acquaintances, developed relationships and had thoughtful conversations. I networked just like everyone else and enjoyed it.
On the second day, there was more networking and I found myself a little less enthusiastic about the whole affair. I needed to take breaks and find a quiet corner to collect my thoughts and reflect on the speaker sessions that I had attended. That evening there was another party that promised to be a lot of fun. Exhausted by constantly meeting and talking to people that entire day, I found myself trembling an hour before the event. The tiredness was both physical and mental and I knew I needed a time-out. So I skipped the party, went back to my hotel, and spent the evening in bed. On the third day, having my energy restored, I was back at the closing party socializing and networking. An entire evening to myself had helped me refuel my energy and given me enough to keep me going the next day.
It isn’t uncommon for us introverts to feel tired, irritated and frustrated even in usual settings at home that involve a lot of people- such as extended families or visiting relatives that are constantly around demanding attention and engagement. And small talk is hard for us- it’s just the way we’re tuned, small talk that’s empty of meaning and beyond the usual icebreaker is simply unnecessary for us. If you’d rather jump into something deeper, we’ll be right there with you talking or debating passionately and listening intently.
How to Identify an Introvert
The most common signs are in the body language of introverts- physical distance from the big noisy groups, general disconnectedness, and a quiet exterior that can seem bored are all representative of the hard-to-scale invisible walls that introverts cannot help but build to protect the very essence of who they are. Introverts don’t only want time to themselves; they genuinely need it to function normally.
Many introverts I know (including me) don’t enjoy long drawn phone conversations, especially when they’re about nothing (i.e. not giving any useful news or information) and with people they regularly meet in person. We don’t want to know what you ate for lunch and we find it excruciating to have to tell you every other day, especially when romantic love is not involved and we’re not swooning over the sound of your voice. We loathe regular conversations where you ask us questions, the answers to which you already know, such as, “So work is pretty busy, huh?” or “Isn’t it too hot there right now?” We’re not rude- and we try, we really do, but there’s only so much empty conversation we can make.
Introverts are often also good listeners, have the ability to put themselves in the speaker’s shoes and offer genuine empathy and advice. This is because our minds are not constantly prepping a related story to talk about when you’re telling us yours, something that occurs naturally with people who like to talk. When we’re listening, we’re actually just listening, with a hundred percent of our attention. That’s not to say that extroverts cannot be good listeners. But you can be sure we’re not competing with you to tell a better story. We’re also observing your face and the subtle emotions that play across it and using all of this information to really tap into what you’re feeling.
How To Care For Your Introvert
If you find yourself in a close relationship with an introvert, acknowledging this one personality trait for what it really is can make a huge difference to your understanding of this person and can deeply enrich your interactions with them.
That means respecting their need for space and solitude as something that essentially pertains to them and is not about you or people in general, and is easier said than done. Sometimes, the people who have known me for the longest time, and claim to best understand me, openly wonder if I simply do not like other people. Of course, this could not be further from the truth and I know this from years of solo travel, when I constantly meet new people and develop lasting friendships on these trips, often opening up about my life candidly to the people I meet. Not what you would expect from an introvert, but then again, the term simply needs better explanation- one, which ironically, the introvert in me is not always keen to offer.
Compassion towards an introvert can ease some of the energy-sucking irritation that they can feel in social situations that demand constant attendance. This could be allowing the person a few minutes’ time-out to spend by themselves without taking it personally or demanding that they hang out with the social group and make conversation. Don’t burden them with having to talk about things that they seem inclined to keep personal- they are not like extroverts who will happily share how they feel about everything. Don’t try to make the introvert in your life feel guilty about not trying hard enough to fit in or not responding to the efforts of an extroverted person or group. And don’t constantly compare them to other extroverted friends, colleagues or people with whom you share a similar relationship with, saying things like “he/she is so lively.” Lively is good, we get it and we can be it. Just not all the time.
Lastly, the best and most selfless thing that you can do for your introvert is also the simplest: say nothing and let them be, just for a little while.
Are you an introvert, or do you share a close relationship with one? Do you have something to add to the conversation? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below.
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