Monday, April 9, 2012


About a month ago my maternal grandmother died, and I had to go back to St. Louis for the funeral. This was not an unexpected nor untimely death. She was ill, and outlived everyone's expectations many times over.
In the Midwest the service is attended by friends and family of the family of the departed. My mother is a sociable woman, and a good number of our neighbors and friends were there to support her. Mom was upset, so I did my best to speak to everyone and say:
'Hello, good to see you. Seattle is wonderful. The Kiddo is great, and the Wife's back is healing up nicely. Thanks for coming I know my mom appreciates your support. How is your wife/kid/dog/grandchild?"
That same conversation, over and over. It was exhausting. At one point I went to the bathroom just to sit somewhere and not talk. When we got to my parent's home for the wake I just wanted to go sit somewhere quiet and read or write, but there was no time.
The wake is for family. Our family is huge. The house was buzzing. I helped put out food, chase my niece, and found a quiet..ish corner and hid. I was able to slow down the flow of people and focus on one or two people at a time. I had some good personal conversations with members of my family that I like, I trust, and who actually know me. After the wake I met my friend Chris for a burger, and some coffee and we talked in great depth about being fathers and told old stories. We talked so much that my jaw hurt.
The situation at the service was horrible. I was overwhelmed. People coming at me in waves. People inserting mid-conversation, making small talk with folks whom I knew almost nothing about. Groping for information to try and knit together some semblance of a conversation. The later situations were far less stressful. I could slow things down. I could have detailed conversations with each individual, create a context and connect. What's the difference?
I am an introvert. That does not mean I don't like people (though I jokingly hyperbolize that I don't, but that is an oversimplification.)
I like the people that I like, and there is a long process to qualify. I find small talk confusing and tiring. I never know what to say to people if we do not have an agenda, or if I don't know them well enough to understand what to talk about. That means that if I know that I'm going to be in a social situation with someone new I prepare a conversation... or at least half of it. If that person takes a rhetorical left turn and blows up my prepared conversation, or god forbid someone completely new arrives, I panic. I have to study them to find something to talk about, I have to probe to get some idea of what makes them tick. Sometimes I'll offer an anecdote to see of they will respond with something similar. I try to lead them into a conversation about themselves. Sometimes this creates awkward silences. Sometimes this leads me to blabbing on only slightly related stories until I can figure out how I can get them to talk about something that makes them tick. It's very stressful.
I am not shy. I'm not afraid of speaking, and I don't worry about disapproval. I don't understand trying to assert my views if either someone else is asserting similar views or arguments, or if I'm studying the argumentation of the person speaking. If someone is speaking I assume they have something to say, so I want to listen.
Say your piece and convince me. I want to know what you think. It takes me a while to form my opinion. I like to look at not just what someone is saying, but how they say it. Do they believe what they say? What about others in the group? What persuasive techniques are being employed? How many of them are bogus?
This has always been part of my personality. I can remember being 4 or 5 and having a relative from far off telling my parents "JB is so serious." I have been described as quiet, serious, or anti-social my whole life.
I liked reading books, I liked sitting in the room with the adults and listening until they forgot I was there. I would go out in the woods by myself and inspect critters and bugs, or just watch the creek flow by.
I'm really sensitive to people embarrassing themselves. If there is a "cringe scene" coming up in a movie, I'll go to the restroom, or pretend to do something else. It makes me ill to watch.

The week before my grandmother died I came across this ted talk:

Unlike Susan Cain I was an introvert in a family of extroverts.
I was looked at as peculiar, and I pretty much agreed.. but I internalized that. So I'm weird, so what. I'm not bothering anyone, deal with it. I don't really pass. In college I would go to parties for an hour at a time. I work in jobs that value one on on conversation, and allow me to delve deeply into complex problems.
I am happy. I spend lots of time with the people I value deeply (my wife, my son, a very few close friends) and contact my extroverted family via email and texts which gives them the contact they need to feel connected, but I am able to boil down the conversations to the important bits.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, or if it makes no sense to you at all; you need to read Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It really changed my perception of myself, and how I interact with my friends and family. I am not strange. Reading this book has opened the world, and released a lot of pressure I was feeling to make small talk. It's still something I struggle with, but I'm focusing on asking more questions. Letting the extroverts roll. Coping less in conversation and letting things flow. I don't have to insert myself. It's liberating.
If you are an extrovert, there is chapter on interacting with introverted friends and family.
If you are a leader: teacher, coach, boss, manager, you need to read this book to set up all of your people to succeed and leverage the strengths of both personality types.


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