So a while ago I wrote a post about what not to say to shy/introverted kids http://community.sparknotes.com/2011/11/10/10-things-you-shouldnt-say-to-a-shy-kid. Since that time I’ve made two really awesome high school friends and gone to a different college from them, where I became a loner. But recently I made an almost-friend (more than an acquaintance, less than a friend), and he has a ton of pretty cool female friends, so now I have a bunch of acquaintances as well. The problem is that my almost-friend is really outgoing, and is thus naturally prone to a lot of the annoying “You’re quiet, why?” and “How many people do you talk to in a week?”-type questions. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt for being a) an extrovert, and thus clueless about how to deal with an introvert, b) a guy, and thus clueless about everything, and c) the closest thing I have to a friend at this godforsaken great institution of higher learning. My most recent interactions with almost-friend have inspired me to write this post about how to start and continue conversation with a quiet person without irritating or insulting them:
- Avoid yes or no questions like the plague. It’s been said before and I’ll say it again. There is no possible way to start a conversation with a yes or no question. Ask a quiet kid “So, are you done with classes for the day?” and they will say either “yes” or “no”. They will then proceed to stare into space/at you/at their mobile device until someone cracks, mumbles a flimsy excuse, and leaves. That person, the flimsy excuse-mumbler, will be you extrovert. Because let me tell you, us quiet people are well versed in the art of awkward silences. We can fidget, glance around, and check our empty inboxes until the cows come home. Can you? No, you can’t, and if you keep asking yes or no questions you won’t be able to make friends with us either.
- Avoid declarative statements like a weaponized plague. “It’s raining” “Yep”, and there goes any chance at friendship. One thing y’all should know about quiet people is that it takes a lot of effort for us to continue a conversation with someone we don’t know well, and it’s nigh impossible for us to start one. You have to make it easy for us, and just pointing out that water is wet or that our shoes are nice (or even worse, that we’re so quiet OMG why) is not the way to do it. The only result of you making a declarative statement is us staring hard at our phones again, mentally begging anyone, anywhere, to text so that we don’t have to fake it anymore.
- DO NOT mention, ask about, or poke fun at the silence. What you have to understand is that the world just isn’t designed for us introverts, so a lot of us have endured some teasing either directly for or as a result of being quiet. And if it wasn’t bullying it was just being ignored, overlooked, or winding up the odd man out every time it was possible for there to be an odd man out. When you’ve known each other for a while (re: weeks or months in which you regularly communicate and/or hang out), established a good rapport, and can talk to each other about almost anything, then you can bring up why your introverted friend is so introverted. If you met a gay guy would the first few things you asked him be “When did you know you were gay?” “Are your parents cool with it?” “Do you LOVE Brokeback Mountain? How about Glee?” Probably not. We ask that you extend us the same courtesy.
- Embrace your inner Sherlock. So I’m guessing a lot of you guys read those first three points and said/thought: “B-b-but dac, how else am I supposed to establish a rapport with one of you awesome, ninja-esque, Batman-type people? It’s not like you guys just walk into a room and make it clear what your interests are like us loud folk!” As always extroverts, you see but you do not observe. If you had observed you might have noticed her dalek necklace, or his hand-painted Portal Converse, or the fact that her message t-shirt is a Game of Thrones reference. It doesn’t even have to be something s/he is wearing. Is he using an iPhone? Do you have one as well? Sidle on over and commiserate about Siri. Did you really like that point she made in class about Hamlet’s relationship with his mom? Catch her after class and tell her that, maybe explain one of your own theories and start a lively discussion. It’s all about finding common interests.
- DO NOT abandon them. You might be able to strike up a meaningful debate with a tablecloth when left alone at a party, but we just can’t do it. Most introverts find it difficult or impossible to jump into the inside joke-heavy banter you engage in with your BFFs. The words “tomato salamander” are only hilarious to you and your close friends. Meanwhile our empty inboxes are waiting, and there are new versions of Angry Birds to be downloaded and played. Having to actively ensure that your new potential friend feels comfortable, included, and can follow at least part of the conversation may feel like babysitting, but I promise if you give us a decent opening (e.g. “Hey Melissa, you watch Torchwood right? Cindy here was just telling me how much she loves Ianto.&rdquo we’ll take it and we’ll run with it.
- Listen as much as you talk. I understand the temptation to use a conversation with a quiet kid as a way to work out your problems or just hear your own voice uninterrupted for a while. We’re all human, which means we’re all just a little but egomaniacal. But introverts get this kind of treatment day and day out; it gets old fast. If you’re wondering why s/he isn’t saying much, consider that it’s because they can’t get a word in edgewise.
- Remember (or realize) that shy/introverted is just another way to be. If you go in assuming, even subconsciously, that any quiet person clearly has some kind of problem, you won’t get far. We can smell you guys (I call them “fixers”, because they see shy/introverted people as broken) a mile away and nothing makes a shy kid shut down faster than the realization that someone has come to “cure” their personality. How would you like it if we started judging you for being comfortable in your own skin and having lots of friends? (I mean gosh guys, just imagine all the YouTube fanvids you’re missing when you go out every weekend. And how to you expect to break the top 4,000 in COD if you’re always hanging out with your bros?)
- Don’t be too insulted if we seem to be ignoring you in favor of our mobile devices, books, or the ceiling tiles. This is usually a result of infractions one, two, three, five, or six and is very common with older introverts. After a while most of us figure out that people just can’t tell when we’re feeling uncomfortable, or don’t care, that extroverts don’t actually know how to talk to us, and that outgoing people just don’t realize how much we don’t want to give them a summary of our social lives. I’m sorry, but Grave Mercy is way more interesting than the number of meals I’ve eaten alone this week.
- Remember that you will pretty much always have to make the first move. Whether it’s making plans or even sitting together at lunch, it will be up to you to place the ball firmly in their quart. Shy kids can rarely tell if we’re being annoying or not, so a lot of will just eliminate that possibility by avoiding you until you make your feelings clear. Don’t get too frustrated when you’re always the one suggesting hangouts, before long s/he will warm up to you and start making plans themself. Just be patient.
- Keep in mind that some introverts prefer to be left alone. It is very possible to be a happy loner, but in my experience the key to that is always having something to do. Long stretches of free time with no obvious way to fill it can be miserable. That’s why some loners (i.e. me) would also love a good friend or two for when the endless downtime gets to us. However, there are some who would genuinely rather be left alone, either for that moment (because they’re having a bad day, they’re working a lot of things out, etc.) or forever. You’ll be able to identify these people when they respond to open-ended questions monosyllabically before returning to their books/phone/etc.
Originally published on January 20, 2013.