As an introvert, sometimes it’s really hard to express my thoughts out loud. I have a million imagined conversations in my head before I spit out one word. The conversation could be with anyone: a family member, my boss, or a friend. Each conversation I have follows the possible responses down different paths. Some paths are good and help me build the confidence to say what I need to say. Others lead to arguments or confrontation that make me think it’s best if I just keep my mouth shut.
Why We’re So Quiet, But Not Really
To the outside observer, I might just be sitting, staring, not doing anything. This is where the classic, dreaded questions always come up for introverts. “What are you thinking about?” or “Why are you so quiet?” What am I thinking about??? Look back at that first paragraph. I couldn’t possibly begin to explain the conversations I’m having, or why I’m having them. They just happen. My usual response to that question is a lie: “Oh, nothing much.” And why am I so quiet??? It’s because I’m having conversations with myself. To you, I may seem quiet. In my head it’s noisier than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But I don’t really want to include you in my internal conversations. So my response to that question, while not really a lie, comes across as more mysterious: “I just have a lot on my mind.” I’m not pouting or worrying. For me, an introvert, having a lot on my mind is normal.
Why We’re Misunderstood
These mental exercises help me gather my thoughts for potential real conversation. I’m not putting together some creepy conspiracy to try and railroad anyone. I simply need to feel confident that my thoughts are articulate and won’t be misunderstood. Ironically, I believe this is where the introvert often IS misunderstood. Sometimes we’ve done so well at articulating our thoughts internally that we sound overly confident in expressing them. The result is that we come off sounding terse or insensitive, like Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory. It’s as though the thought was a little too ripe and perhaps slightly offensive to another’s senses.
Why We’re Effective
On the flip side, those planned conversations can be really helpful during a job interview, a networking event, a business meeting, or even a party. It’s not that I know everything I’m going to say before I say it. But I’ve rehearsed so many possibilities in my head that I can confidently follow almost any line of conversation and contribute meaningfully. Being able to add in a little bit of humor (yes, sometimes we plan our humor too), can take away the aura of seriousness we sometimes convey. With the right balance of humor and meaningful ideas, we can seem like really cool people, although I rarely ever feel as cool as I sound.
Why We’re Shy, But Not Really
Impromptu speaking doesn’t come naturally to the introvert. We can become good at it, but it takes practice. That practice happens in the form of having conversations with ourselves. This is why it’s important, especially in conflict, to let introverts have their space. It’s why we tend to prefer e-mail instead of the phone for communication. It’s why we make lists and copious notes before we act on anything. We’re not shy. We need time for our thoughts to ripen. If you put us on the spot, those conversations we have internally might come out as unripe thoughts. We may stutter and stammer as we try to quickly find the right conversational path to follow. We sound shy, embarrassed, and inarticulate. I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing to say is a thoughtful “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” It’s not avoidance behavior. I just need to work it out in my head first.
So what am I really thinking about? 99% of it is stuff you’ll never hear. But the 1% you DO hear comes from still waters, the depth of which you’ll never know, unless you’re an introvert.