I could hear hushed tones by the front door. I sat on the low couch of a stranger’s living room, checking email, swatting the occasional mosquito away. Just a few minutes earlier I’d been lugging my 25lb backpack around the sweltering streets of Montpellier, but once I recharged, I’d be ready to prove introverts can Couchsurf with the best. The voices floating in from the other room gradually rose and fell in volume. Had I heard that last bit correctly? Did the host who just met me tell his other guests that I’m “very shy?”
The two South African sisters, tanned and sandy from a day at the beach, shuffled in a few moments later. The younger of the two crooned out a hello in the saccharine tone you’d use to address a toddler. Yep – I heard it right. The few minutes I spent politely listening to our host’s instructions, weary from eight hours of buses and trams, forever imprinted me “very shy.”
We live in a world that doesn’t stop talking. When most people expect even their newest acquaintances to be outgoing, familiar, the life of the party, the nuances of quietness get lost pretty quickly. So let’s break down some of the myths and misconceptions of quiet.
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Shyness vs. Introversion
Shy and introverted are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Shyness is a personality trait, stemming from a fear of rejection. A shy person is reluctant to interact with others because they worry about being liked. Introversion, on the other hand, is a bit more complex as it’s a full personality type. One of its markers is limited social energy. Introverts need alone time to recharge, and therefore prefer spending their time and energy on close friends. An introvert is reluctant to interact with others because they worry about enjoying the interaction. Shy people are typically all introverts, but not all introverts are shy.
These two groups do have one important thing in common, however: most people don’t really know how to interact with them. As evidenced by my first hour of Couchsurfing, the fastest way to make a shy or introverted person completely uncomfortable with you is to call them shy. The way our society favors extroversion, “shy” can feel like a bit of an insult, particularly to those of us who don’t actually identify as shy.
So what should you do when you encounter someone on the road who seems quiet?
Consider the circumstances
Thinking before you speak may not come naturally to some extroverts, but it is a critical step in interacting well with introverts. If a fellow traveler seems quiet, take a moment to think about why they might be quiet. Shyness is just one of many possibilities. Other potential reasons for quietness could be feeling tired or overwhelmed. A quiet person may be busy concentrating on work, personal correspondence, or some other task.
Don’t talk down to them
As was the case with my first few interactions in Montpellier, extroverts sometimes resort to childlike tone and language when dealing with introverts. This is completely unnecessary and can even feel like a slap in the face. Just speak to introverts like intelligent adults, like anybody else. Really, it’s not rocket science.
Tone it down
A defining characteristic of introverts is how they react to outside stimuli. In layman’s terms, introverts are simply more sensitive to things like loud noises, bright lights, fast movements, etc. To that end, you should be mindful of your volume when you introduce yourself to an introvert. Keep an eye on your body language as well. An introvert’s personal space is sacred, and you should be cautious about getting too close or touching an introvert right away.
Take a break
How much you speak should also be at the forefront of your mind. Be sure to leave pauses so your introverted partner can offer their own thoughts. Asking lots of rapidfire questions, or instantly launching into your entire life story will send introverts out of their comfort zone fast. Make sure your conversation actually has some give and take. Introverts don’t like talking for the sake of talking. You should both be learning about each other and each getting something out of the interaction. You should also be willing to step away from the conversation entirely at some point. Introduce yourself to show you’re approachable, and after a few minutes of talking, move on to something else, like reading a book or catching up on email. If you connected, introverts will come to you later to talk more. And if you didn’t hit it off, there’s no harm in cutting your losses and each spending your time with folks you have more in common with.
The benefits of introverts
It’s easy to feel like talking to an introvert is a one-way street, but if you can put in that effort without coming across as imposing, the payoff is great. Introverts typically dislike conventional small talk, so once you’ve established a basic comfort level, you can look forward to a really interesting, meaningful conversation. And once you’ve proved you’re willing to meet them halfway, you’ll have a loyal friend for life.
For more real facts about introverts and how awesome we are, check out this great series on myths about introverts at Awesome Inventions, or read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
Want to hear more about my own experiences as an introvert on the road? Read my first musings on travel as an introvert, written during my RTW planning process.
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