Shhh! 3 Frequently Misinterpreted Introvert Behaviors

Introversion is a stable aspect of personality, not a form of social anxiety.

Posted Apr 27, 2019

Shane Rounce/Unsplash
Source: Shane Rounce/Unsplash

In the midst of a career in which I have found myself speaking to groups and managing people, I routinely avoid small-talk and spontaneous gatherings, where I find myself short on words. Sometimes I let down my guard and unleash a torrent of hyperactivity and pranksterism, but that is behavior I typically reserve for my daughters and wife. I’m socially slow-to-warm-up yet an organized, focused thinker, dependably conscientious, and privately creative. I listen more than I talk, and I think before I speak. I am generally quiet. I literally do not process thought at the speed of social conversation, and my silence can easily be mistaken for disinterest or worse.

Here are a few examples of commonly misinterpreted introvert behaviors:

1. Small Talk

If you're an introvert, this one rises to thorn-in-the-flesh magnitude. Make no mistake: Introversion does not mean one is averse to human connection. For many introverts like myself, it's quite the opposite. Yet, for introverts, small talk is a means to serious conversation; it is not an end in itself. Many introverts have a very strong aversion to small talk.

It isn't that we introverts don't want to talk to you (necessarily). Introverts must think it out before they are able to talk it out very well. On the other hand, extraverts must talk it out in order to think it out.

Folks ask me, "How was your weekend?" and I'm apt to respond, "Fine," just as I did when my mother asked me about my day when she picked me up from junior high. Yet I enjoy time one-on-one with a friend, having a deeper conversation over coffee or a pint of beer. In small talk, I wince, writhe, and wither; in more isolated and focused conversation, I can be direct and even, I am told, disarming—we are a confusing sort.

2. Standoffishness

At one organization I worked at years ago—Metrocare Services in Dallas, Texas—I was excited upon being hired as a clinical director for their therapeutic foster care program and began reading up on the organization. In that search, I stumbled onto a link to a recent interview of then-CEO Dr. James Baker on National Public Radio.

Dr. Baker was insightful and articulate, and I was excited to work for him. When I came on staff, I learned, by Dr. Baker's own admission, that he was quite introverted. Before one branch meeting when he was to come to my site, he went so far as to warn staff of his introversion in an email, letting folks know he would be reserved, and he encouraged staff to initiate conversation with him. I found this strange and refreshing.

True to form, Dr. Baker was mesmerizing in front of our group, and when I went to him afterward to formally introduce myself face-to-face (we had only emailed), he seemed distant and disinterested, yet I had an understanding that his presence with me was being influenced by his own temperamental wiring, and that affected how I engaged with him. For one, I didn't take his demeanor as a personal slight against me.

Kyle Glenn/Unsplash
Source: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

3. Reclusiveness

Little pleased me more as a youngster than to be off on my own, exploring trails, sitting in the silence of nature, or imaginatively carrying out some odd job, such as cleaning my favorite trees with dirt (the hobby of an introvert, to be sure). I spent much of my free time alone reading and writing. I collected baseball cards and coins and spent countless hours organizing them, creating indexed lists, rudimentary spreadsheets to track changes in their value (I had a subscription to Beckett Sports Card Monthly and a copy of The Official Red Book of United States Coins).

A Note on Shyness

And, of course, there's shyness. I have already shared a few thoughts on "standoffishness," which is perhaps just one common way that similar behavior can be perceived—that is, the same or similar behavior by a person in a different situation or role or season of life may be interpreted as "shy." While either description may be sufficiently fair, it is my duty on behalf of introverts everywhere to explain something.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. Extraverts are not necessarily gregarious. These two stereotypes are well-earned by superficial assessment; however, the next time you encounter a shy introvert or a gregarious extravert, know that the combination of these traits are not necessarily coincidental, but neither are they necessarily intertwined. To be clear: introversion is a stable aspect of personality, not a form of social anxiety.

Being an Introvert

In these ways, I have the burden and benefit of knowing more of who I am and, more to the point, knowing how I am—temperament and personality. It is confirmed to me each and every day in my experience of my own self in life. I have learned that people are different from each other, and that no amount of effort is going to alter the most fundamental traits by which we process information and engage in relationships. We each have cognitive, character, and temperament orientations by which we live. 

Rauch (2003) offered a satirical, and strikingly accurate, description of introversion:

     Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice? If so, do you tell this person he is ‘too serious,’ or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out? If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands. (p. 133)

Over the course of my personal and professional journey, I have remained acutely aware of my introversion, which carries its own idiosyncratic drawbacks, but also its own unique strength and utility. Well, I've said enough. Before we go, for goodness' sake, let us have a bit of silence.

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Rauch, J. (2003). Caring for your introvert. Atlantic Monthly, 291(2), 133-134.