Hard on the heels of last week's surprisingly popular How to Be Friends with an Extrovert (without losing your mind completely), I'm now prepared to flip the coin and advise you on how to get along with the introverts in your life without driving them completely bonkers.
Although to be fair, I should warn you up front that I might not exactly be the best person to offer advice on this subject, mostly because although I'm friends with a lot of introverts and love them dearly, I'm honestly not entirely sure that I don't drive them completely bonkers from time to time.
But we live and learn.
How to be Friends with an Introvert (without driving him completely bonkers)!:
Step One: Remember that being introverted is not the same thing as being shy. To be shy is to feel a sense of apprehension or awkwardness when meeting new people or when thrust into unfamiliar surroundings. To be an introvert, however, means to process thoughts and feelings internally rather than externally. Although some introverts may be shy, it would be a gross error in judgment for you to assume that these two qualities go hand in hand.1
My sister/roommate is a prime example of this. If you have ever met her, you've no doubt found her to be friendly, chatty, warm, and personable. She has no problem trying new things and confidently travels the world enjoying zany adventures and meeting all kinds of new people. She is, however, a dyed-in-the-wool introvert. Her introvertedness does not make her shy, but it does mean that when she's upset by something, she does not talk about the situation until she has everything fully processed. It also means that unlike me, she doesn't feel the need to have a wrap-up chat at the end of the day in order to process the day's events (although she does succumb to these for my sake. Because she's AWESOME).
Like most introverts, she enjoys what someone has termed "a rich inner life" of deep thoughts, daydreams, speculations, and opinions. She just doesn't feel the constant need to validate them by perpetually keeping the world clued in on what she's thinking and feeling. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated extrovert, this might cause my sister to come across as standoffish and hard to know, when in reality, she's just a very friendly introvert.
Step Two: Remember that introverts need a break. In the summer of 2010, I took a spectacular two-week road trip with one of my co-workers, someone who also happens to be the most introverted of all my friends.2 Perhaps my favorite moment from the entire trip (other than the fateful day that we climbed to Delicate Arch and saw a man nearly plummet to his death) was the day when, having already driven about half of our 740-mile one-day haul from Salt Lake City to San Francisco, my friend Alissa turned to me and sighed, "You know..... we don't really have to talk the whole time."
Yes, I'll confess: I probably had been talking for eight hours straight at that point. But in my defense, we'd somehow committed the massively gross oversight of not having packed any music, and the radio was only picking up static for most of that day. In addition, since Alissa and I had just recently started hanging out, I felt that I had a lot to tell her. Like... you know... everything that I'd ever thought or felt. Here we were, cooped up in a rental car while passing some of the most beautiful scenery on God's green earth, and not only did I find myself sharing the experience with a good friend, but I was also simultaneously able to lose myself in a haze of extroverted bliss, half-drunk on the joy of letting loose a torrent of hopes, dreams, and tales of wonder--all the while failing to realize that Alissa desperately needed time not only to process what I was saying, but also to process everything that we were seeing and experiencing that day, something I was making impossible, what with my steady stream of enthusiastic yammering.3
The point here is that if you want to be friends with an introvert, you need to make a concious effort to give him a break at some point. For example, when I hang out with Alissa now, I compromise by only sharing with her every third or fourth thought that pops into my head rather than every single one.
Step Three: Realize that introverts handle problems differently from the rest of us. This is important to understand, because if we fail to realize this, we may assume either 1) that the introverts in our lives are not dealing with their problems, or 2) that because they haven't said anything, nothing's bothering them.
Neither of these assumptions is correct.
Remember, introverts do their primary processing internally, meaning that when they've been upset or hurt by something, the last thing they want to do is to sit down immediately and talk it out. That's what an extrovert wants to do, because he needs to talk about what's happening in order to process it fully; however, the introvert needs time to work through everything inside before he's ready to talk about it. Furthermore, there may be situations in which he finds that his internal processing has been sufficient to help him handle the situation, leaving him with neither the need nor the inclination to talk it through at all.
I'm not saying that internalizing frustrations and hurts is the way to go, or--conversely--that letting your thoughts and emotions spew all over the place at a moment's notice is intrinsically bad. I've seen situations in which the former has been emotionally harmful and the latter has been surprisingly endearing. I'm saying that just like the extroverts of the world, our introverted friends are a pile of strengths and weaknesses, and that understanding why they react the way that they do will aid us all in getting along better.
Step Four: Resign yourself to the fact that we may always drive each other a little bit crazy. If there's one thing this post has made abundantly clear, it's that being friends with extroverts can be a challenge for introverts, but did you know that the opposite is also true?
That's right. Introverts drive us crazy!
I mean, we do love you, but you have to understand that sometimes we feel uncomfortable that we don't know everything that you're feeling. We worry that you're upset about things that you're just not telling us (and if you don't tell us, how can we fix it?). We watch you sitting there peacefully, lost in your own quiet thoughts, and we wonder how much is going on in your head that we will never, ever know.
The truth is that more often than not, we find you completely baffling. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What's going on in your adorable little heads?
When confronted with an introvert, most extroverts generally resort to firing off a rapid succession of question upon question in the single-minded hope that if we can only ask enough questions, we will finally be able to puzzle out the secret of what makes you tick.
This behavior, of course, will sometimes lead to the introvert developing an actual tic.
But at least we can assure ourselves that we have made an effort to know you, which is not something we think you can say for yourselves.
In summation, let me state for the record, on behalf of extroverts everywhere, how happy we are that you introverts are willing to put up with us? Because if you didn't deign to mingle with us, we would be stuck hanging out exclusively with each other. And that would just be...
Well, I don't know if there's a word in the English language adequate to describe just what that would be like.4
So, introverts of the world? Thank you. Thank you for surrounding us with your aura of peaceful strength and quiet mystery.
Most of all, thank you for saving us from ourselves.
God only knows where we'd be without you.
1. Contrary to popular assumption, extroverts can also be shy. Unfortunately, our failure to recognize this shyness for what it is often causes us to chalk it up as low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. "How to Overcome Shyness" is, however, another post entirely.
2. It's due to her, mostly, that I understand even a smidgen about introverts. Hats off to you, AKB. Thanks for putting up with my bombastic brand of friendship.
3. I think this is probably a run-on, but I don't care.
4. Although the Chinese have a good expression for it: 亂七八糟.