Why are you talking at me?
October 16, 2007 4:30 AM   Subscribe

Please help me kill my introversion before it kills my relationships.

(standard apologies for the length)

One weekend a couple of years back, I had a good college friend come and visit me at my place in NYC. I remember on that Saturday we made no plans, didn't go anywhere, just opened up the windows and door to the deck and enjoyed the nice weather. She read a book and journaled, I surfed the internet and cleaned my desk. We went for hours at a time without saying anything to each other. I often think of this as one of the most pleasant days of my life - having somebody there with me but the both of us actively pursuing our own activities, not feeling much need for words.

People don't seem to get me. I'm an introvert, and unfortunately for a long time have been trying to live like I wasn't one, which seemed to work well enough for maybe the past 5 years. I had my problems here and there, but I got by - landed the better jobs, got the promotion, had good friends, was enjoying life. During this period I rarely dated and never had a serious relationship, not so much for lack of opportunity as just a lack of interest.

Recently I made a major move to a new city (in a new country), and in particular have struggled with two individuals: a subordinate I manage on my work project that brought me here, and a colleague on another project nearby who I have been spending a few weekends traveling with. In both circumstances, I have extremely upset these people, the first in the work environment and the second in the travel / leisure environment, due to my lack of effort at open, direct communication. Both of them, actually, were upset by the same situation - when I picked up my book for an hour or more and just read without saying anything. Was I supposed to warn them I was going to read instead of chat? This kind of blows my mind - that things like this which seem so insignificant to me could lead to total relationship meltdown.

Things I have trouble with:

1) Eye contact. When talking to either of the aforementioned about specifics, I find it incredibly hard to maintain eye contact, regardless of the environment or topic at hand. I have absolutely no trouble with eye contact with strangers, my close friends, a girl I'm interested in, or acquaintances that I have little dealing with. It seems to be more in relationships that are forced upon me by circumstance (i.e. work colleagues, etc.).

2) Small talk. I pretty much hate this with anyone. I like to get to the point, I don't want to comment on the weather or your day yesterday or other uninteresting information. I know this is rude and inconsiderate, but how do I change myself to actually be interested in hearing someone talk about these things?

3) Verbalizing my thoughts. If I don't have anything to say, I usually remain quiet. I realize that some people need more explanation about what I'm thinking / feeling / etc., but even given this realization I find it very hard to remember / force myself to actually say things that I really don't think need to be said. This sometimes pours over into not verbalizing things that I do think need to be said, because an atmosphere of tense silence has already been created, and because I'm fairly comfortable with it, so why rock the boat?

I often prefer to communicate via email / IM - writing feels important to me - I have my thoughts there in a format that is clear and easy to reference, and it allows no one to bend what I've said. That said, I think I sometimes rely to heavily on this when I should be saying things verbally.

How do I change? I realize there are parts of this that are just who I am, but if who I am makes other people miserable, I believe I have to change that. I suppose "get thee to therapy" is the logical response but I don't really have that option at the moment (on reduced salary with limited benefits in a country I'm not from). What I am looking for are practical habits I can look to develop, tips/tricks I can pick up, ways to be a warmer person that can help others understand where I am coming from, etc..

It seems like most of the popular stuff out there regarding introversion is focused on helping everyone else understand us (see here, here, and here). That's all well and good and I wish they would, but its a hell of a lot easier to change myself than it is to change everyone else.
posted by allkindsoftime to Human Relations (39 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
Might be something in Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto for you. It's not a "help them understand us" book but more of a "fuck you, I'm fine the way I am" book. A salesman friend of mine recommended How to Talk to Anyone but I found it bordering on teeth grinding territory.

I feel the same way about writing but have come to the painful realization that, especially where any kind of personal relationship is concerned, people's interpretation of the tone and intent of your written word can vary so drastically that the consequences of wild miscommunication must be carefully considered.

Consider joining a cult or something like Amway so that people will begin to avoid starting small talk with you for fear of either proselytization or a sales pitch.
posted by well_balanced at 5:27 AM on October 16, 2007

You have every right to be yourself. In situations like those you mention above, just say, "I need some alone time, see you in an hour." Wave a book at them, if that helps.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:34 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think being an introvert is anything to be ashamed of or worthy of 'therapy'. I do agree that it can cause problems of its own - but then so can extroversion. If people are taking gross offense at your mannerisms, then they need to grow up (which may require a gentle explanation from you that that's just your nature and you didn't mean any offense).

I'd say that the key to engaging successfully with people who constantly demand a response is to roll with your introversion, don't try and be something you aren't, and play to your strengths: being able to get straight to the point with a well-considered, well-informed response without having to obscure it with blather. Better to be quiet (though in this case not silent) and confident rather than artificially loud, and insecure.

Also, here's a short article to read: Caring for Your Introvert.
posted by Drexen at 5:37 AM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

I hate small talk but work with (and live with) the type of people who think everything they say is interesting to everyone in a five mile radius. My solution is to try to carve out restorative silent time in between interactions. Wearing earplugs so I don't inadvertently get wound up over other people's conversations helps. If you have an office, shut your door and set specific times when people would be welcome rather than let them barge in anytime. Find somewhere nice where you can eat lunch by yourself.

As for not babbling endlessly about any old nonsense that comes into your head, that's a plus. People will eventually learn that when you say something it's worth listening.

In general, though, you don't need to change much. Making a forced effort will most likely come off as false and also teach the annoying idiots others around you that they don't have to be considerate to others.
posted by methylsalicylate at 5:45 AM on October 16, 2007

in my opinion, the cardinal rule of relationships is not to change thyself. you can try, but such "changes" are at best temporary as you become overwhelmed by the stress of keeping up a persona that isn't yours. what you really need to seek is a compromise and understanding between those you work and communicate with.

first of all, take a hard look at the fact you are in a new country. are your co-workers/colleagues natives of that country? it might not neccesarily be your introversion that is causing your problem, but cross-cultural misunderstandings (which are inevitable and should work themselves out as you gain more experience in the country).

i also wish you would elaborate on your problem. you say that both your colleagues were offended by your picking up a book and reading, but you did not specify in what environment this incident took place in. did this happen during leisure or work time? were you supposed to be working on a project together or discussing ideas when you picked up that book?
posted by tastycracker at 5:47 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: i also wish you would elaborate on your problem. you say that both your colleagues were offended by your picking up a book and reading, but you did not specify in what environment this incident took place in. did this happen during leisure or work time? were you supposed to be working on a project together or discussing ideas when you picked up that book?

Incident 1 (with subordinate): We were invited by our client lead to hear him perform in the symphony orchestra that he is a volunteer in. After arriving at the university where the performance was to take place, we had to wait approximately an hour while they rehearsed. I found a bench in the lobby and pulled out "Of Mice and Men" and got to work on it. It was what I would do on any typical Sunday afternoon. The subordinate disappeared for most of the hour which I noted as odd, but thought nothing further of. A full week later it bubbles up in a huge discussion with our team senior management about the problems we were having communicating, and felt completely out of left field to me.

Incident 2 (with colleague): We were returning from a long weekend trip to a national park, and he was (unbeknownst to me at the moment) already upset with my introverted behavior the previous day - not talking to him much, getting online with my laptop late at night and leaving him to himself for the rest of the evening, etc.. On the drive back to the town where he lives (about 5 hours), we had been listening to music and not saying much so I pulled out my book and read for about an hour and a half. Apparently he also thought this was rude.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:00 AM on October 16, 2007

When you are in a foreign country, people tend to characterize your actions (especially ones that are difficult to understand) in terms of you being a foreigner.

I can say from experience that if you are an American, their interpretations will tend toward A. you are stupid and B. you are arrogant.

I don't think this is really about introversion, it is about a cultural misstep.

Be mindful of how you appear as an outsider.

Be open to changing your behavior until they are comfortable with you, or at least until you understand the cultural norms well enough not to stomp all over them.
posted by fake at 6:12 AM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: With regard to the incidents you mention, I suspect the issue is that your co-workers see the work-related downtime (waiting for a concert, hanging around in an unfamiliar town/hotel, driving long distances) as a boat that you are both in together. When you go off and find something else to do, you are jumping ship. Now, that's certainly your prerogative. But if you want to seem friendlier, find something you can do together (a drink at the hotel bar, for example) for at least part of the time.

As for the eye contact issue. That was a big issue for me, too, as recently as a year or two ago, and unlike the other two issues you mention I think it's one that's really important to try to change. Not making eye contact with someone is like slamming a door in their face, even if it has nothing to do with them, and I wish it hadn't taken me so many years to figure that out. At any rate, it just takes a conscious effort for a while, and eventually you'll find that it comes naturally.
posted by amro at 6:16 AM on October 16, 2007 [6 favorites]

People like to think they are interesting, and that others are interested in them, especially others they've actively sought out to spend time with. Doing your own thing in the presence of another person is often not enough attention based on social norms, so they may feel that you don't really like them enough, or at least not enough to interact/connect with them. I think your first step is trying to understand/internalize the reasoning behind people getting miffed/uncomfortable with your style of interaction.
posted by softlord at 6:16 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with the people here on one level- it's not something you need to change. And for the most part, I think it's acceptable to just not care what people think.

But you have work issues, and since you have to communicate and deal with these people, it would be better if there wasn't acrimony.

I have done okay by being up front about it. Before going on a trip with your colleague, just say "Seriously, it's nothing personal- it's just that I'm a bit freakish in this way. I need my alone time." (I'm not saying you're freakish- I'm the same way- but I find it helps to be self depreciating.)

You can also buy your alone time. Say straight up: "I'll have one drink with you but then I'm off to the hotel room with my book. Because, you know. I'm antisocial."

Regarding eye-contact, there's nothing to be done but to be aware of it and correct yourself. If you realize you're not making eye contact, make it.

Regarding small talk, I think it's not a good thing. I consider small talk to be people just moving their mouths because they're uncomfortable with silence. Personally, I'm just fine with the silence. However, it's going to happen that you'll be with someone who isn't, and who starts asking you about the weather. I have found that it's good in these situations to shift the conversation and ask questions. Not small talk questions, but real questions. Where are you from? Do you miss it? When was the last time you were there? Do you have brothers and sisters? Do you get along with them? What do they do? This accomplishes several things: It gets them talking about something real. It takes the focus off you and allows you to listen to something interesting instead of having to talk. It helps you see that the people around you are people and not just office drones. It may help you connect with them. It lets them know that you care about other people, and this will give them reason to cut you slack when you want to go read your book.

I don't think it's necessary to change yourself fundamentally, but I think picking up a few coping skills might help.

On preview, I like what amro said about that down-time being a boat you are in together. Your alone time is valuable, but sometimes you have to help a guy out. You always have the option of not caring what he thinks, but then, you know- you have to not care what he thinks.
posted by jiiota at 6:24 AM on October 16, 2007 [5 favorites]

Best answer: First, you are a fine person and shouldn't need to change. Second, you probably do need to change, at least until you can find a more amenable career (which you should be thinking about, IMHO).

So, for one thing, quit coasting. If you're going to be with work colleagues, you cannot turn off. Most people sort of coast along in neutral when it comes to small-talk -- since you're not that kind of person, you need to make sure you're actively paying attention.

Actively paying attention.

Not: "oh, he just mentioned the NY Jets. Hey, I wonder what those clouds are called. Is that a Howard Johnson over there?"

Instead: "He mentioned the NY Jets. What do I know about the Jets? Are the Jets doing something? God I hate sports. Why the hell are they named the Jets? Aha! I'll ask him why they're named the Jets!"

...that way, even if you know absolutely nothing about the Jets or their sport, at least you've shown you're paying attention. That's the big thing, IMHO -- showing that you're paying attention.

Or, framed differently, think of it as a first date. Every freaking day, with the same goddamn people. It's gonna suck for a long time, but you'll get used to it.
posted by aramaic at 6:25 AM on October 16, 2007 [15 favorites]

I live with an introvert who likes a lot of alone time. I don't know if I'm an extrovert exactly, but evidently I need a lot less time alone than he does.

The conflict occurs when I take his need for quiet/alone time as a personal affront. This is probably what your coworkers thought. "What, I'm not interesting enough to chat with? I'm boring this guy? He'd rather read than talk to me?" The lack of eye contact, willingness to make small talk, etc., all feed into this notion that you really don't care about the other person. The other factor is the perceived abruptness. YOU know you want to go read a book now. To THEM, it may seem like they've been abruptly shut down. Kind of a "talk to the hand" gesture. Warn them. "Hey, it's been really nice chatting with you. I think I'd like to chill out for awhile before our staff meeting. I'm reading this great new book called _________ and I'm really into it. I think I'm going to take some time and see how far I can get."

If I were you, I'd show your concern/warmth in ways that feel sincere and comfortable to you, rather than forcing yourself to become someone you aren't.

1.Can you make "small talk" in writing? Perhaps an e-mail inquiring about their children, their pets, what they plan to do over the holiday weekend? If you cover this beforehand in e-mail, maybe they'll be less apt to drone on about it in person.

2. Also, the occasional gift goes a long way towards spreading goodwill. Can you throw some theater tickets their way, or whatever seems appropriate given that you work with them?

3. If you're physically in the same office, FOOD is an excellent substitute for small talk. Pick up some donuts (or the local equivalent) on the way in.

4. If you're in a car and don't want to chit-chat, turn on the radio. If you're on a train, bring headphones. Again, warn them before just shutting them out.
posted by desjardins at 6:35 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Was I supposed to warn them I was going to read instead of chat?

This can actually help. When I started warning my roommates on the first day that I was really quiet and if I didn't talk much they shouldn't take it personally, it seems like the attitude I got back changed instantly. When left to draw their own conclusions past roommates had assumed I was a snob or had something against them specifically and generally responded pretty badly to me. I'm sure it still annoyed the later roommates that I was so quiet but they weren't hostile in any way.
posted by waterlily at 6:38 AM on October 16, 2007 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking as an introvert and manager, you have to put effort forward and attempt to talk with people. You don't have to do it on their terms, but you have to try and speak on their level. I usually try to find some common ground and let them rabble a bit, then declare I need some alone time or some such. As a manager, it's very easy to say "I need to concentrate on these mananger duties/paperwork/meeting notes" etc and get some time.

As to your specific circumstances, I suggest talking with those two and explaining the differences in workstyles/personalities. Emphasize that if they need more of something, they can ask for it. At the end of these meetings or future interactions ask them if they need something clarified or further info.

As introverts, we're fine and don't need to change, but we do need to recognize that not everyone is like us and make a decent effort to seem accommodate their personalities.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:45 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't have any work-related advice, but as far as your voluntary relationships go...you should be comforted by the fact that *many* people find your description of your perfect day with your friend that nice Saturday in NYC to be very appealing! Maybe if you work on finding more friends and having more days like that, then you'll be more able to deal with the stresses of your chatty, needy coworkers.
posted by footnote at 6:55 AM on October 16, 2007

I often prefer to communicate via email / IM - writing feels important to me - I have my thoughts there in a format that is clear and easy to reference, and it allows no one to bend what I've said. That said, I think I sometimes rely to heavily on this when I should be saying things verbally.

Major faux pas. Look, these communication mediums are great for short information, but the moment you think someone might misunderstand, you belong on the phone or better yet in person. The fact that you refer to it being a method of 'truth' means that you fight with people over what's going on (or looking to 'prove' what you said.). Follow up with an email, but never use this medium for such. Some 90% of intent is lost in text only mediums.
posted by filmgeek at 6:59 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

okay, so incident 1 does seem like an overreaction.
incident 2 is a bit harder to judge but i'm assuming that you're not that close to your colleague - he must not know you that well or he wouldn't have been offended. but since this is a work colleague - whenever you spend time with this guy you'll want to ask yourself before you start any task - is my current action furthering our working relationship? regardless of whether you two are actually working or not obviously, any solo action is not going to be helping much unless its close to morning/evening (when everyone is tired anyway).

if you going to have to continue working with these people i'd suggest coming out straight and saying it - "i'm an introvert, dammit!" not using those exact words of course (unless you feel like it...), but by taking aside these people and tell them what you've told us - "this is the way i am [give examples]. i operate in such and such manner when i [examples]. when i do so, it does NOT mean i am angry/mad/being rude, etc. if you are confused by any of my actions, please ask me about it, i promise not to be offended."

as for your other problems

1 - try not to freak yourself out about eye contact. seriously, how many people always stare you directly in the eyes all the time while talking? if you pay attention i'm sure you'll notice that the other people's eyes aren't always focused on you, but roaming while talking. when the eye contact starts getting uncomfortable, look away for a moment then look back. practice.

2 - does anyone actually like small talk? i think this is something you're just going to have to suck up and deal with - its not like you're answering a philosophical thesis or anything. realize that it's a necessarily evil if you want others to warm up to you. but also realize that you still don't have to like it, but just pretend that you do (which i'm sure every one else is doing).

3 - you also say you write better than you speak - well how about trying to mix things up a bit? when you get the urge to send that email reminder make yourself place a call instead. heck, type out the message first and read it out loud if it makes it easier. also try you might want to working on your empathy skills. practice the method of putting yourself in the other person's shoes by asking yourself if the other person knows what you are thinking. if the answer still seems obvious (yes, they should know), then ask yourself - have i actually TOLD this person this?? If the answer is no - tell them, even if it seems superfluous. Your problem is of under-communication, so you should definitely not be worrying about over-communication at this point.

i think the hardest part for any introvert in creating a relationship with an extrovert is getting over that "hump" . attempt make an extra effort to get to know and get along with these people, even if it means temporarily practicing their uncomfortable extrovert ways, because it won't last forever. once everyone gets to know each other better then you can slide back to your comfy book-reading ways (and they can't complain because you already told them what it means!)
posted by tastycracker at 7:02 AM on October 16, 2007

Although in NO WAY am I suggesting that your introversion is Aspergers or any other clinically-diagnoseable problem, I heard an interesting interview with the author of this book on NPR, and it seems like the book focuses on the tactics and skills the author used to overcome his social awkwardness. A big one, since he did have Aspergers, was eye contact, but it was also about learning to make small talk like aramaic's Jets dialogue above. This stuff is intuitive to some people, but not to others (with and without Aspergers), and perhaps not to you.

You may want to look at that, or some of the other Aspergers literature, just for guidance about picking up social cues (ie reading the situation in the car, figuring out what your role needs to be, and acting accordingly - or at least acknowledging it before you turn to your book).

There's nothing wrong with introversion. You do not need to change. But you may need to learn to set expectations about your participation, in a friendly and respectful way, and clue these people into your world, if you want to maintain these relationships.
posted by nkknkk at 7:06 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

The eye-contact trick I taught myself as a very young child in an attempt to lie successfully* to my mother: just defocus ever so slightly.

*I don't recall whether I ever did lie successfully to my mother, but a bit of defocus certainly made the attempts much less nerve-wracking.
posted by flabdablet at 7:25 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

You are so not alone. I always feel like I have a social hangover after being around people for extended lengths of time. I quickly run out of things to say and lose interest in what the person I'm talking to is saying. Most people ramble on about such dumb stuff, it's embarrassing.

My best friends are people that I can be with totally quiet with for stretches of time. You are right, most people don't get this though. I've had fairly good luck explaining to other people that I am an introvert, otherwise they tend to think I am really stuck up and don't like them.

I've managed to evolve into the "good listener" type of introverted person. Learn how to ask lots of good questions and then semi pay attention when people are babbling away. It is work, but it's better to be labeled "quiet, but a good listener" than "arrogant jerk."
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:28 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, here are some eye-contact guidelines you may find useful.
posted by flabdablet at 7:28 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

You can also buy your alone time. Say straight up: "I'll have one drink with you but then I'm off to the hotel room with my book. Because, you know. I'm antisocial."

This really isn't that helpful; the listener will still think you don't like him, which is surprisingly important. You can counteract that impression with some sincere appreciation / compliments, worked into the conversation beforehand.
posted by amtho at 7:39 AM on October 16, 2007

Was I supposed to warn them I was going to read instead of chat?

Indeed. Most people will see you as friendlier if you say something like "Hey, you mind if I get some reading done?" or even just "Well, I'm gonna go read for a bit."

In general, acknowledging people is polite and ignoring them is rude. Just pulling out a book without saying anything, that'll make people feel like you're ignoring them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:57 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've noticed that in a lot of these AskMe questions, people start out sounding very reasonable, "This is just how I am, how can I develop some skills that will make it easier for me to get along with people who aren't like me?" but then somewhere in the middle, people will say something like:

Small talk. I pretty much hate this with anyone. I like to get to the point, I don't want to comment on the weather or your day yesterday or other uninteresting information. I know this is rude and inconsiderate, but how do I change myself to actually be interested in hearing someone talk about these things?

Look, I go through phases where I hate leaving my house, so I empathize with the introverted hermity thing. But where I think you're cutting yourself a little bit too much slack is in your assumption that it's okay to treat people the way you do - not even feigning interest in their chit-chat, pulling out a book and ignoring them, etc.

I don't think you need therapy. And I don't think you sound like a bad person or anything. But I think you could really benefit by reading, say, some Emily Post. You sound like you're being a little rude. Not on purpose, but that doesn't necessarily matter to the person on the receiving end of what I would say is your apparent disinterest, but then of course it's really your actual disinterest.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:38 AM on October 16, 2007 [6 favorites]

In general, acknowledging people is polite and ignoring them is rude. Just pulling out a book without saying anything, that'll make people feel like you're ignoring them.

Right. Reading around others is tricky; you can't generally do it in the prescence of people you don't know very well. It gives the impression that you don't give a damn.

I also think thehmsbeagle brings up some valid points. You've broken down your social interactions into those you choose and those "that are forced upon (you) by circumstance". But nothing in your life is forced upon you. If you chose this job, then you have to choose to deal with all that comes along with it, including socializing with the people you work with. It's the part of work nobody ever talks about. When my boss is talking with me on the phone and I think, man, I wish she'd stop talking so I could start working, I remind myself that doing whatever she wants me to IS my job. It sounds like your job is very heavy on trips, events, concerts. If you find that it's something you are absolutely, positively not capable of dealing with without wanting to scratch your eyeballs out, you could look for positions that require less of it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:57 AM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm an introvert, I read all the time, even at parties- yet I agree that pulling out a book while waiting for a concert with someone else is incredibly rude. When you go to something with someone else, you're in it together. So you go to a cafe, you take a walk, you go to a bar, or you can even try bringing along an extra magazine or two to offer them while you wait. Talk about the book you find so fascinating.
As far as small talk goes- it's not ever interesting, in and of itself, any more than waiting in line at the security checkpoint at the airport is interesting. Small talk is the jumping off point that gets you into the more juicy parts of conversations. It's a means, not an end.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:30 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ninety percent of human communication is, I suspect, the equivalent of barking across a lonely plain, saying, "I am here, I am here." It's not carrying information per se, it's just signifying presence.

The content of small talk is less important than that you engage in it to begin with. It really doesn't matter what you say (to some degree), just that you are acknowledging the humanity of whoever is talking to you.

Eye contact is surprisingly empowering once you learn to make yourself do it, I've found. And it can be learned through practice.

I agree with several of the comments above that this is less about introversion and more about courtesy. And if having to be "on" while you're at work is stressful and emotionally exhausting, well...yeah. That's why they call it "work".
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:58 AM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

how do I change myself to actually be interested in hearing someone talk about these things?

Make it a game. Competing with yourself to see how well you can do will keep you interested, and you might actually develop some interest in the conversation as you go along.

Level One is simply to see how long you can keep the conversation going without potentially-uncomfortable pauses. This will develop your skills at asking leading questions, picking up topical cues in conversation, etc. It's commonly held that people most love talking about themselves, and this is especially true of extroverts who you might be trying to pacify. Your challenge here is just to ask questions that will keep the other person talking. You barely have to contribute anything.

Level Two is challenging yourself to find something interesting about each person with whom you're forced to engage in small talk. You can learn to steer the conversation in a direction that will be more interesting to you. People are so darn quirky, I guarantee you'll be able to find something interesting if you're willing to work for it. Doing this without sounding like an interrogator may or may not be difficult for you - if it's tough, think of it as an additional challenge in the game. As others have said, small talk is not meant to last for hours - it's supposed to be the warm-up for an actual conversation.

Level Three, if you feel like going that far, is to find ways to relate to your small-talk partner that let you add your own experiences to the conversation. Once you've found something interesting about the person, hopefully this step won't be too difficult. At this point you've pretty much beaten the game - you're having a genuinely interesting conversation.

I went through this progression myself over the course of several years - initially I was just trying to be polite without passing out from boredom, but now (shockingly), I find that I actually enjoy talking to new people.

I know where you're coming from... When I was a kid, my family would all bring books when we went out to eat. We'd sit in a booth, all four of us, and not talk to each other until the food came. If the books were good, sometimes we'd just read through the entire meal. I didn't even realize that was weird until college. Your perfect day sounds like my perfect day, too.
posted by vytae at 11:16 AM on October 16, 2007 [4 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with being an introvert and introverts don't have to change, so since there's a conflict, there must be a thing or two wrong with being an extrovert. Here's a short list, gathered from the comments so far:

Extroverts are uninteresting gabby chit-chatters. Which is to say, they're stupid. They invented the idiotic social convention of small talk--making little reports on inconsequential phenomena and asking little questions for the purpose of generating an answer to which one can listen and feign interest, thus creating the impression that one is interested generally--which is duplicitous and beneath contempt. Nothing extroverted people have to say can be of interest, everything they do is dishonest or silly or both. They don't like to see a person reading, probably because they don't like reading themselves, probably because they're stupid. They'd rather communicate live and in person, possibly because they can't write (too stupid) or because talking enables them to lie and to twist other people's reasoned, cogent discourse to suit their own half-witted aims. For these reasons it is agony for introverts to be in the company of extroverts; thus they flee the company of extroverts whenever possible. And to top it all off, these insufferable imbeciles are always saying that introverts don't like them!

All life is suffering.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:25 AM on October 16, 2007 [5 favorites]

Don: For many extroverts, the "small talk" is like a carrier wave for what really matters to them: feelings and ideas that can't easily be expressed in words.
posted by amtho at 11:28 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

PS: All people are lying dumbasses to one degree or another, and some of them are gabby, to boot. However, none of us is wholly unlikable or wholly uninteresting. Even the average housecat has a few interesting, likable personal idiosyncracies. Find some small thing to like or find interesting about your people. This is another kind of reading--if you can read novels about people, you can read people, you just have to develop the skill. People become less boring the more you learn about them. Right now they're dull and lifeless, like badly drawn characters in a schlocky airport novel. That's not their fault, it's your failure/refusal to read them.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:39 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Seriously, this thread is fucked. You are in ANOTHER COUNTRY. Did anyone read the question? He's getting this response in the context of an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CULTURE.

Not introverts VS extroverts. This is a cross-cultural problem.

In this OTHER COUNTRY they likely have different cultural expectations regarding personal interactions. You will find that paying just a little attention to these things can smooth your interaction a great deal.

Just think about it for a minute. Go to another country, working closely with other people. Then ignore them completely for a few hours. Do you expect them to "understand" you?
posted by fake at 11:52 AM on October 16, 2007

Uh-oh, it looks like my Internet broke. Fake, when I read it it said, "People don't seem to get me." It said that for five years he "rarely dated and never had a serious relationship, not so much for lack of opportunity as just a lack of interest." It also said that his most cherished memory is of spending an entire day a couple of years ago in silent companionship with a good friend from a long time ago. Didn't it say all that stuff when you read it? Just the stuff about his recent culture shock among the garrulous denizens of sunny Italy or wherever? Crap, I'm doing it wrong again! Should I have used the Mozilla?
posted by Don Pepino at 12:21 PM on October 16, 2007

Best answer: Two things come to mind, allkindsoftime. First of all I'd like to nth the suggestion of looking into developing listening skills and empathy for the small talk challenge. As a fellow introvert, the focus on the other person, instead of worrying about what I should say, gives me something to do. I'm not great at small talk so I make it my mission to find out more about the other person and try to have a deeper conversation. This gives me a bit more confidence, but this doesn't always work because not everyone wants to go there. In any case, asking questions or listening for underlying feelings in what people say, and reflecting that back to them keeps the focus on them. It can make them feel heard and understood and maybe feel good about interacting with you. I think feeling heard and seen for who we are is what so many of us need anyway....

The second thing: smile. I don't know about you, but personally, I find that I can go practically a whole day sometimes without talking to anyone. In that time, I'm hanging out in my mind, thinking, working things through, not realizing that the furrow between my eyes might be deepening or a worried or distracted expression might be forming on my face. I might not be upset at all, content in my reflection, but my face might be blank and creating confusion for those around me. Smiling lets people see the difference between you in focused mode and you in interaction mode, if that makes sense. It might clear away some confusion when you need your space. And it can be contagious, really, and it can lighten your own mood too. Just a thought.
posted by onoclea at 1:12 PM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Seriously, this thread is fucked. You are in ANOTHER COUNTRY. Did anyone read the question? He's getting this response in the context of an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CULTURE.

My colleague whom I'm traveling with is from my home country - the US. My subordinate is from London but I'm trying not to make bast sweeping generalizations about people from there based on just her. I'm in South Africa.

Hope that clears you up. I've been getting on just splendidly with the people down here, for the most part.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:43 PM on October 16, 2007

I understand where you're coming from. I used to bring a book with me everywhere - yes, including on dates. Even first ones. And read it, whenever I was not actively participating in conversation - eg, small talk, something I wasn't interested in/knowledgable about, anything like that.

This, I now realise, was rather discourteous in most contexts.

The incidents mentioned above - as a introvert, I understand. I have done the same in the past. As someone who has been working on people skills for most of the last decade, I will say that it was simply an inappropriate behaviour to engage in.

If you are with a work colleague or a friend, you need to keep your attention focussed on them, especially if you are anywhere but at home, or you don't know them well. It's an unwritten rule of social ettiquette. If you need the downtime (as I often do), excuse yourself from their company, and go have your downtime.
posted by ysabet at 8:49 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the constructive responses - I think I've realized a few things I need to work on and have a few good ideas on how to get started.

By way of follow-up, I've patched things up with the colleague and we've discussed much of what was said here in detail - he's been very open and honest which was helpful. The subordinate bridge was fairly well burned before I even posed this question - she asked last week to leave the project, and we're bringing replacements on board (shuffling the team a bit). Regardless of what I decide to say to the sub before she leaves, I'm already considering using some of the aforementioned tactics to cut-off misunderstandings with the new folk. I will say that I think the sub had some issues of her own and things weren't 100% my fault, but there it is. Guess I'll bat .500 on this one.

Again, thanks for all the great feedback. I'm going to try to put together an article / blog post (as mentioned, I think better via writing), and will pull much from here I'm sure - I will post the link when its finished.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:43 PM on October 17, 2007

Best answer: I hope I'm not coming too late to this thread. I am an extreme introvert myself, I've never been diagnosed, but I'm certain I have Asperger's. It's been a long, painful journey for me to learn the basics of social interaction. But I think it's important to learn these things, because it's disrespectful to make the people around you uncomfortable.

I used to be afraid of "small" talk, but I've come to learn that everyone has a story. I think it's very easy for us introverts to live in our own worlds and assume we already know everything about everyone around us. But really we know so little. For example, I might learn that the person sitting next to me is an editor, and it would be easy to for me to think "Oh, I know what editors do" and leave it at that. But could I, a computer scientist, start working as an editor tomorrow? Not at all. I realize then, that I really have no idea what the day-to-day life of an editor is like. So there's a thousand questions right there that I can ask.

Some examples: Last weekend I was at an orienteering meet and I met a school lunch lady who was an 8-time off-road racing champion. I shared a long car ride with another computer science PhD student today. I figured his background was just like mine, but I found out he was a physics and singing major as an undergrad. That's crazy! A simple question like "What does your wife do?" led me to learn that she's a philosophy student and her PhD thesis is in the aesthetics of dressage. How many people do you meet like that?

Look back at your own life and realize how interesting it is. Now realize there are 6.6 billion people in the world and all their stories are totally different from yours. You'll find there isn't enough time for all the small talk you want to do.
posted by bugloaf at 8:03 PM on October 19, 2007 [6 favorites]

if u lived like your werent an introvert why is everyone else who doesnt seem like one (ie your coworkers) the 'normal' people in this story. Who's to say they dont have problems they're keeping from you,

its interesting. the things you say about being rude could also be described as their inability to cope with situations and express themselves. although the subordinate instance. I would think conventional view is you're supposed to look after the well being of your subordinates. not desert them in unknown territory. Leaving it to chance on whether they can cope by themselves isnt a good way to proceed.

With your collegue, it seems more an inability to to express themselves in times of need. Or just ask if you want to do something or not. with equals, you cant put lack communication down to one side. maybe your both to blame for the situation. he didnt ask and you didnt say.and he assumed you'd want to do stuff with him and couldnt cope when you didnt.

either way. it doesnt seem completely your problem.
posted by browolf at 11:36 AM on October 27, 2007

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