Sound of Silence
May 8, 2014 5:28 PM   Subscribe

Can these conversational hiccups be saved?

Hi guys,

So I've started dating a guy (it's been a couple of months now) and a lot of things about it are going really well. He is thoughtful and interesting and cute. This boy is incredibly incredibly introverted, which is something I knew before we started dating, and in fact, we have had a lot of nice conversations together. I am not generally stymied by his kind of math nerd introversion (his words!), as I can be shy myself and I have dated people all along the extrovert/introvert spectrum, but he is, in fact, the most quiet person I have ever met. (Like, I think I knew him for years before he even said a word to me.)

Lately, though, this thing has started happening when we're talking that's kind of ... bugging me. I will say a thing or tell a story and sometimes he just ... won't respond. For example, a few weeks ago we were talking about our families and he was telling me some pretty personal things about his. I listened and asked questions appropriately (I think). As we continued talking, I told him a sort of personal and quirky thing about mine - namely, that I have relatives in the music industry who helped discover Elvis and many other songwriters. They led dramatic lives full of money and scandal, ripe for a movie or a book (which I'm going to write ... someday.) The reaction was just pure ... silence. For minutes. He didn't even nod or say "Huh" or even acknowledge that I had spoken. It wasn't as if he said something upsetting, he just stared at me for *minutes* and then, eventually, changed the subject. (I've literally never encountered a person who doesn't want to know more about that!)

I've noticed this happening more and more, and not just about weird quirky things. I'll tell a story or mention a news story and there will be a pause that lasts for minutes. Then, he might just change the subject completely or ask me something totally different, as though he didn't hear me or as though I hit upon some kind of subject he can't grok.

The thing is, I don't doubt this person's interest in and affection for me, not one bit. He has demonstrated many times that he is kind and loving and caring. And I knew going in that he is a quiet, introverted individual. I'm not terrified to just sit in contented silence -we have done so at times and that is nice. But it's sort of unnerving to just have someone not acknowledge that you're talking and then just start saying other things. Moreover, he feels comfortable telling me about important things like his family, his friends, his hopes and his dreams, but then never asks me about mine - when I do kind of insert them into the conversation naturally, it's like he just gets totally stymied and doesn't know what to say.

The last time this happened, I got a (completely unprompted) heartfelt email of apology about all the pauses, saying he loves talking to me and that he's "sorry he's so boring." I don't think he's boring and I definitely definitely don't want to make him feel bad about anything! I want to care for my introvert! But at the same time, it makes me feel strange and sometimes sad, like I'm dealing with someone who just, for some reason, ignores certain things I say (even if it's probably more like anxiety and this isn't exactly what's happening). I'm a writer and a storyteller by nature and by profession, and I'm starting to wonder if he even values that about me (if that makes sense). I have so many friends who tell me they love my stories (in fairness, I have a few unusual and interesting ones!) and my storytelling style, and ideally, I'd hope my partner appreciated that about me too, instead of just wishing I'd shut up already.

Mefi, is there any way to address this conversational tic in particular without making this person feel sad or like I want to completely change him? Or is this just a harbinger of long-term incompatibility and doom to come?

Sorry for the length. Thanks, y'all, as always.
posted by bookgirl18 to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In the one example you gave, you said he was telling you personal things about himself and you told him that your relatives discovered Elvis. Which, man, you can't get less personal than that. Maybe he didn't respond/know how to respond because it was a jarring shift from the personal sharing he'd been doing.
posted by kate blank at 5:42 PM on May 8, 2014 [19 favorites]

Is it possible that he thinks you're telling tall tales, and doesn't know how to react? Sometimes I get thrown when someone says something like your Elvis story, because I can't decide whether it's true or not. Then I can't decide how to react while I'm deciding. Then I realize I've been staring at my conversational partner unable to decide and not reacting, and that I've been letting things get weeeeird. At that point, all I can think to do is say, "SO HOW ABOUT THAT WEATHER?!" and hope things get better fast.
posted by Coatlicue at 5:43 PM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

This really doesn't sound like a symptom of being introverted, or quiet. I can see why it bothers you, I just think you may be looking for explanations in the wrong place if you're thinking it's a trait tied to introversion or quietness.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:45 PM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Some people are really not good at the "asking questions and acting interested" part of holding conversations. Does he do this most of the time, and only falter occasionally? Or does he usually just offer content without acting engaged by the conversational material that you offer?
posted by amaire at 5:47 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a writer and a storyteller by nature and by profession, and I'm starting to wonder if he even values that about me (if that makes sense). I have so many friends who tell me they love my stories (in fairness, I have a few unusual and interesting ones!) and my storytelling style, and ideally, I'd hope my partner appreciated that about me too, instead of just wishing I'd shut up already. 

Honestly, the theatrical storyteller type is not the right partner for everyone. It's a lot of stimulus to take in if you are an introvert. Your normal level of conversation might overwhelm him.
posted by kate blank at 5:48 PM on May 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

I was pretty shy and introverted when I was younger (still am in certain ways). People would say stuff to me and I would listen and think it was interesting inside my head, and even though I had no visible reaction whatsoever I would assume they somehow *knew* I heard them and found it interesting.

After a number of misunderstandings I learned how to make myself say "Wow" or "That's cool."

I wouldn't jump to any conclusions about how he's not listening or doesn't care. He might just need to learn to say "Wow."
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:53 PM on May 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

My boyfriend does this sometimes too. I am super outgoing one-on-one and although I'm an introvert I can really turn it on when I'm in conversation with someone. I am very animated. My boyfriend is also an introvert but he's a quiet one.

He tells me that he likes my conversation and when I talk a lot, and I believe him. I've gotten used to the pauses, and he's probably gotten more used to my intensity. You might want to tell him that the zero-reaction thing makes you feel a bit odd and that sometimes you're afraid you should just shut up already. Maybe he can give you some reaction - even a "Neat" would help, so that you know that he's interested and enjoying himself but that he just doesn't know what to say?

I do have to say that it makes arguments pretty difficult, but those are already the pits. Just something to keep in mind.
posted by sockermom at 5:57 PM on May 8, 2014

Introvert/awkward conversationalist speaking: if I'm in a "trading stories" conversational mode and someone tells me a truly awesome story, sometimes it's hard for me to respond because my brain jumps immediately to "ZOMG nothing I say will ever be as cool as that, so whatever I say next will be a horrifically underwhelming conversation killer" and I panic and am unable to come up with anything to say in response, even something as simple as "oh, cool! tell me more about that." Which effectively kills the conversation.

It's possible your boyfriend suffers from the same paralysis (hence his "sorry I'm so boring" comment—maybe he feels like his stories don't measure up, and he's failed at entertaining you)? N-thing all those above who suggest gently letting him know he doesn't need to respond with an epic tale, just a simple "sweet!"
posted by rebekah at 6:32 PM on May 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

Oh man! My husband does this. Reasons he does this? He's quiet, somewhat introverted, a little quirky, and has ADD. Usually I figure he was thinking about something else (ADD), or couldn't think of any to say in response (quiet and quirky.) If I feel like I need feedback when I finish a story and he's silent, I'll ask, "What do you think about (some element of story)?" or something along those lines.

I love the guy and once we discussed it a few times, it mostly became a non-issue for me. If he doesn't answer when I've told him of plans or asked him to do something, though, I will then say, "Did you get that?" just to make sure he wasn't completely zoned out.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:51 PM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This happens to me sometimes, too, for a few different reasons. When someone tells me something truly interesting or thought-provoking, I absorb it like a sponge as they speak. Once they stop talking, though, my mind is still churning thinking about what they said and often times when I don't respond right away it's because I'm trying to organize my thoughts- I am having simultaneous questions/ comments/ feelings about the thing I just heard. Like I have to take a second and mentally organize what I want to ask or say first, because I don't want to forget the other things I want to respond to, either. If that makes sense. But then sometimes, as I'm doing this, I realize I've been quiet TOO LONG and suddenly I panic in awkwardness and all five of the things I wanted to say suddenly disappear. Then I either say something dumb like "oh . . . wow" or change the subject to avoid continued awkward pause.

Is it possible that you're just overloading with information? Do you pause during your stories long enough for him to ask, like, one question about a sentence or two you just said? The longer you're speaking uninterrupted, the more things he has to respond to when you finally stop talking and then it may be kind of a deer-in-headlights thing.

Whatever it is, I don't think it sounds personal. It is possible that it's just a kind of a bad match in terms of conversational styles. I especially find long, unbroken conversations exhausting and hit a point where sometimes it gets increasingly difficult to respond appropriately, I just kinda need a break. Also though, honestly, I find these situations often happen with people who never ask me questions. Do you ask him questions about himself? It can be hard for an introvert to just launch into a story about themselves unsolicited, so they just let you talk, but it starts to become uncomfortable and then the pauses happen.

Do you spend any time having long conversations online (eg gchat?) This can maybe help you sort out whether it's a matter of him needing to just pause and organize a response, versus whether he really is uninterested in what you're saying.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 7:53 PM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The reaction was just pure ... silence. For minutes.

I'm wondering why you're letting minutes go by without speaking up about the silence. Since it makes you uncomfortable, you could address it directly:
"what do you think of that?" or
"oops, was that a conversation killer?" or
"I need you to let me know you heard my Elvis story."

I get stymied in conversation when people give me information that I don't know what to do with. I think if you prompt him for the kind of response you want, he'll start to figure it out. Like you share a news story about a tragedy, and then you say, "don't you agree that's sad?" Or you share a story about your day, and then you say, "can you imagine?"
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:01 PM on May 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

It kind of sounds like he's comfortable enough being more himself around you that he's stopped doing some learned conversational behaviors because he feels like you won't penalize him for not doing them now. Can you have a talk about this with him and give it a label so you can say "hey, you're doing the thing"? Make sure he knows it's not that you're mad at him or upset, but that it makes you not know how to act, too. Ask him if there's something he'd like you to do when he does that. Maybe he'd respond to a concrete question about what you just said, like "Do you like Elvis at all?" that might get things going again.

I'm a bit of a storyteller too, but I know some of the quiet people I'm friends with don't have much to say in response to my stories. I've grown to be okay with their quiet, and to relish it.

Even if he is uninterested in what you're saying sometimes, I don't know that that's a bad thing. We can't all be intensely fascinated by every thing that comes out of our partners' mouths all the time. Being able to just change the subject, or quietly move on with what needs to get done that day (clear the table, get started on the dishes, put on some music) without feeling pressured to come up with something else to say is pretty nice. Maybe you could talk to him and let him know that he can respond with actions instead of words? He might be more comfortable knowing that if you're telling a story he likes but has nothing to say about, he can squeeze your hand or kiss your cheek to let you know he's present.
posted by Mizu at 8:01 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you asked him what's going through his mind at these times? That's an important question. It could be that he doesn't know what to say. Maybe if you gave him some ideas, that could help him.... or if you thought it through yourself, you might understand better why he's stuck.
posted by amtho at 8:02 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is he going deaf?
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:20 PM on May 8, 2014

I dated someone who did this too, usually when I was stating some opinion. I was left with the impression he didn't agree with me, but was conflict averse so ended up just changing the subject. But he could also be cruelly blunt, and the conflicts from that never stopped him, so... who knows? I also know someone who does this if you ask him a direct question, like "so where are we going to dinner, seeing as you are driving and taking us there right this second", just acts like you never said anything. We've tried to get him to talk about this (seriously WTH), but he'll just get annoyed and refuse to discuss it. Mind boggling.

I don't have any answers for you about why he does it, just an agreement that this behaviour is really unpleasant. I would ask a follow up question about his opinion instead of sitting there in silence while he stares at you.
posted by Dynex at 9:11 PM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband does this. He is introverted and thinks of himself as super logical and rational, and he honestly didn't understand for a long time that most people want replies to what they say most of the time. He thought that if he didn't have anything interesting or appropriate to say, it was better to say nothing. So I'll say, "Man, I had a hard day at work today." And he will look at me but say NOTHING.

At first I found it hurtful (and actually still do, but it happens more rarely now). We talked about it, and he was baffled I found it hurtful. He said something like, "But you KNOW I love you, so if you have a hard day at work, you must know I sympathise. But if I don't actually have new information to convey, what's the point of speaking?" He thought he was being efficient!

I've trained him to respond more often, even if it's just "mm-hmm", but it really did require me to bluntly remind him on multiple occasions until he got it.
posted by lollusc at 10:12 PM on May 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

You guys really need to talk about it. It sounds like he is worrying about it too, but for all the wrong reasons ("boring").
To me, it sounds like panicking. Like he spends so much time worrying about how to come off looking cool in your eyes that he forgets to think about you and your conversational needs and how was your day, anyway?
But he's the only one who knows if that's it. You sound like you have a good rapport in general. Use your empathy to broach the subject in a direct but gentle and non accusatory way.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:39 AM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

The last time this happened, I got a (completely unprompted) heartfelt email of apology about all the pauses, saying he loves talking to me and that he's "sorry he's so boring." I don't think he's boring and I definitely definitely don't want to make him feel bad about anything!

I suspect there are class and educational differences here. Honestly, the Elvis story sounds a little show-offy. I can see why he didn't know how to respond. Maybe scale it back a little bit and listen more.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:05 AM on May 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Are you dating my ex?? I am an introvert myself but my ex-boyfriend would do the just not respond at all thing and I remember telling people he wasn't much of a talker and they all laugh because "men, right??" But it was very extreme, and when I said he didn't talk I meant absolutely literally staring at a wall level of responsiveness. The good news is that it seems your boyfriend can express himself a little better in writing. The solution I found to this in my own situation was to let the little things slide (So he didn't react to a quirky family story? Let it go...) and when it came to the big stuff (not responding during serious conversations about our relationship, hard times, etc.) I let him write it out. I understand how unnerving it can be to be on the receiving end of this silence and I imagine even more so for an extrovert, however, no one is devoid of thoughts or emotions but some people need a little help finding the best way to express them. creative and a little more selfless about the small stuff
posted by Skadi at 6:47 AM on May 9, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, all - as is generally true of Metafilter, I appreciate the diversity of perspectives and suggestions. I can see how people could sense some kind of class or educational difference from the way I wrote this here, but the truth is that we both come from similar middle class backgrounds and we both have graduate degrees. If anything, he is the one with a PhD, while I have a "mere" Masters (kidding). So, I think that's a red herring here.

As many of you have said, we do have a good rapport and he does well when we write (heck, I think I do better when I write too), so I think there's probably a way for me to maybe scale back on my talking and to also express to him what is bothering me. Thanks again!
posted by bookgirl18 at 8:24 AM on May 9, 2014

I'm definitely introverted, but I kill in most social situations. Provided they aren't openly hostile, and they aren't overlong (like most introverts, I need some recharge time). So I hesitate to look too hard at that aspect of his personality for answers. There are lots of different kinds of introverts, and most are able to have a conversation (however tiring) without weirdly freezing up.

I'm thinking this may have to do with your storytelling abilities. Someone upthread posited that he might think you were stretching the truth, and not know how to respond, and something about that rang true for me; one of the only times I do fall into an awkward pause in a conversation is when I'm trying to figure out if someone is telling the truth.

Think about how a good storyteller operates. My experience, anyway, is that 1) I have an instinct for how to hit the "good" marks of a story before even telling it once, and that 2) by a couple of repetitions (and audience observations) I've made a seamless, compelling story out of it. By subtly buffing rough edges, omitting irrelevant details, and -- usually subconsciously -- changing the order of events, I've ultimately created something that is a great story... But that isn't a true story, anymore. (At least not objectively.)

It strikes me as feasible that he's "seeing" the unnatural smoothness of a good yarn without actually thinking, "that's a lie." It just feels off to him, and he can't make small talk while he processes. And, if we want to link this to introversion, that might be one place to do so; many introverts are either unskilled -- or more likely -- uninterested in "filler" talk. "How's the weather" sort of stuff strikes us as a waste of valuable social energy. Where an extrovert will tend to power through silences, and automatically say whatever, an introvert is more likely to sit quietly until they have something "worthwhile" to say. And if the only worthwhile thing on tap is a vague, confused, "Huh? Elvis? Really?" a polite introvert might say nothing. Until it's uncomfortable... Crap, now what?

I want to nth the idea of doing more communication through writing, too. My girlfriend and I are both introverts, and when we are having trouble expressing a heavy emotion, or have hit a period of glacial silence during an argument, sitting down and addressing things in writing is really helpful to us. We can get ourselves across with more clarity and without the time pressure to just say something already. If that's something you're both good at (and it sounds like he's already shown more comfort expressing himself that way?), and it doesn't become a crutch, that could just be a good relationship tool for all kinds of situations.
posted by credible hulk at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could you maybe be unconsciously one-upping him?

If you listen to his fairly normal stories, and respond with super-amazing-fabulous stories, he may feel like he can't keep up. Maybe consider how much of your storyteller nature might be imposing on the people around you. How much conversational space are you taking up when the two of you talk? Not just in kinds of stories and responses, but in length and number. I'm fairly introverted, though I do pretty well one-on-one. But there are certain extroverted friends of mine who make me feel like there's just not enough air in the room for both of us to be talking.

Silence isn't always a bad thing. Maybe he would enjoy sometimes just sitting with you, each of you doing your own thing, and not talking. Maybe it takes him a while to hit his stride conversationally - and just when he's getting into his story groove, you move on to what seems like a new topic, leaving him floundering again.

Or, maybe he's boring, and you're fine! From what you've said above, it could go either way.
posted by kythuen at 5:00 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

"a way for me to maybe scale back on my talking"

I feel sad about this. I have encountered this before in a partner. It was not an aspect of their introversion, nor do I think that you, as a successful adult, have somehow not until now not realized that you are difficult to talk to.

In my experience it was a symptom of hostility and competitiveness. Well, at least that's how I finally interpreted it, which prompted me to end the relationship.
posted by macinchik at 12:28 AM on May 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

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