You’re in the middle of a group of people. Your head feels like it’s been lit on fire and you can’t find words to say that aren’t, “My head’s on fire and it’s really uncomfortable.” You sit and stare at everyone talking and wonder how you will ever make connections. You go home exhausted, as if the people you left behind were Daleks (or Dementors) who sucked out your soul with their wind-inducing kisses or their toilet plunger arms. If any of this makes total sense to you, then you, my friend, are an introvert. You make up twenty five percent of the population. You are a rare specimen formed with gifts that not very many people understand. However, I have good news for you. There are a group of people out there called ambiverts, we plop right in the middle of the extroverted/introverted line. We see where both of these people are coming from and we can help the everyone meet in the middle.
I recently went to a writer’s conference in Nashville. It was a wonderful experience. However, while I was there I constantly felt introversion and extroversion pulling me in two different directions. To be honest, I felt mildly insane. I had one voice telling me to go take a nap in the darkest hole of the Earth, and another voice telling me that I was having the most fun of my life, and that I needed to meet more people. This paradox (along with feeling bad for the people who where overwhelmed by the large group) brought me to the conclusion that I should write a guide for introverts that find themselves needing to turn on the extroversion switch, but don’t know how.
A. Embrace Yourself (literally and figuratively)
Before I get into the tips and tricks of pretending to be an extrovert, we need to have a campfire pep-talk.
Introversion isn’t a deformed and broken version of extroversion. I can assure you that your family line hasn’t been cursed, your mind isn’t working against you, and your feelings aren’t illegitimate. Think about it this way, every person in the world is running on a completely different operating system. The person reading a book about raising free-range chickens with the life-endingly skinny jeans and chartreuse colored glasses has a way of viewing the world that you don’t. Even though there are similar groups of people, we all have built (and are still building) a specific set of systems and processes unique to us in which we view everything that happens.
I’m not saying all this to transition us into a discussion on the differences between introverts and extroverts; there’s enough literature on that already. I just want to make sure you know I’m not writing this article to “fix” your introversion. You are who you are, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can accept healthy critique about how to be a better introvert. This guide aims to do just that. I want to give a few tools and tricks to navigate your introversion in times where it would be useful to be extroverted. Now, I realize that some introverts are great at discussion, it just exhausts them. I don’t want people making comments like, “You think all introverts are like toddlers…you pompous ass.” If you find yourself thinking that, then try viewing this guide as a look at the components of making conversation, and don’t send me an email about how insensitive I am.
How to Talk To Strangers
Yes, mom told you not to do it, but she wasn’t giving you a lifetime excuse to live under a rock. Talking to people you don’t know happens…always. You can’t escape this. It doesn’t matter how many days you skip taking showers in order to ward off Mr. Talkytalkerson on the subway. Mr. Talkytalkerson will still talk, and he will probably tell you that you smell bad. As half extrovert, I have a secret for you. There is a framework for good conversations (bear in mind there isn’t really a framework for great conversations. Those come with time and practice). You can use a few tricks to make discussion happen, and the good news is, sometimes they even help you escape from being the one that has to talk.
A. Ask People About Themselves
People know about themselves more than any other subject in the world. Even gossips know themselves. Ironically, that’s why they talk about everyone else. You can never go wrong by asking people about what’s going on in their life. Here are two conversations, one is the typical American pleasantry conversation, the other is a little deeper and helps propel conversation forward.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Good. How are you?”
There isn’t much here. This kind of give and take accomplishes nothing. You would have learned more about the person by staying silent and watching them interact with their surroundings. Yet, this is the typical American conversation. It's also where a lot of people get stuck (granted some people just don’t want to talk). Consider this conversation instead:
“Hey, how are you?”
“OK, have you had a good morning?” (This kind of question opens dialogue and gives the other person a chance to discuss how they feel about their morning)
“So far so good, I’m busy though.” (This is your stepping stone to craft your conversation. This person just shared with you a part of their life that they otherwise wouldn’t have said if you didn’t ask.)
“I understand, is it just work related?” (Notice you’ve yet to say anything about yourself? You’ve just asked questions based on the content that the other person has given you, no matter how small.)
“Yeah, mostly.” (This short remark could end the conversation. It’s a closed statement, there really isn’t much to go on, and therefore you could stop talking. However, there is a way to keep it going.)
“Is it a good busy?” (You revisit the content you already know. You know this person is busy, they’ve already told you that. Therefore, you can go back to that.)
“Yeah, I suppose.” (OK, this person either needs to read this guide, or they really just don’t want to talk.)
The world tries to tell you that you are either good or bad at conversation. Don’t listen to it. You have to adopt a different view of conversation in order to get better at it. Think of conversation as a man wearing tons of clothes: sweaters over suit vests, tighty whiteys over spandex leggings (sorry, for that mind picture). Conversation is figuring out how to get him to take off a layer (this analogy is going downhill quickly). With each new layer, you get a new bit of information to build your conversation with. If you learn he has a dog, you’ve just successfully made him take off that horrible Christmas sweater. You ask about the dog and learn that he has kids that like to play with the dog. He just took off another jacket. Successful conversation doesn’t have to be meaningful. It just has to be genuine.
Questions show an interest (whether you want to be interested or not) in the other person. Questions invite people to take off jackets and mittens, and the sooner you realize that everyone has the same skin and bones underneath all of the layers, the better you will be able relate.
The phrase “make conversation” came about for a reason. Often times, conversation doesn’t just naturally happen. There are people who have the innate knowledge of how to converse. They don’t have to think about how to “make conversation”, they just do it. Introverts typically don’t have this ability, which isn’t a problem unless you let it be one. The good news is that making conversation can be learned. Just like a muscle, it has to be used to get strong. It may be awkward at first, but in order to change that, you have to do it, not avoid it.
B. The Use of Micro-facts
Another way to “make” conversation is by using small things that happen in life that you’d otherwise find trivial. For example:
“How are you?”
“Good, I was almost late to the bus today, though.”
In the same way that questions have the power to help others take off layers, inviting people to share in your humanity does as well. By bringing up this tiny speck of nothing, you’ve just offered the other person a chance to tell a story about how they were late to the bus once. You also just made the opportunity to discuss how much better it would be if the bus routes went to a different stop. People connect with things that make up the human experience. This basic connection isn’t limited to feelings, though that is a big part of it. Someone can connect with you over things like stabbing yourself in the roof of the mouth while you were brushing your teeth.
Using micro-facts will take some taming of your desire to keep space between you and others, but micro-facts don’t have to reflect how feel about something. Telling someone you were late to the bus may make you look not put together, but there isn't anyone in the world that is. (This gets into the discussion of self-image and pride which is a completely different factor that would take an entire book to discuss). You can use micro-facts to help shape a conversation in the way you’d like it to go. If you know ice cream, then direct the conversation toward it with micro-facts. Respond to “how are you?” with “Good, I made ice cream last night.” People don’t expect you to give them a concrete fact about your life, and when you give them one they often respond warmly. Remember, when using micro-facts, you aren't necessarily giving someone access to the maze of your soul. You’re only offering a small glimpse of what makes you, you.
C. The Use of Humor
This topic is uber-vast because it’s the hardest to achieve and understand if you don’t naturally use it. Humor is a way of looking at the world and the stuff in it that’s contrary to typical thought. “I jumped off a tree” is a lot less funny than “I swung my stubby sausage arms forward, hoping for gravity to be kind to me. It decided to punch me in the face." We laugh because we are surprised. Something happened we didn’t expect.
For some of you, I’m sure being able to navigate a conversation while using phrases that people don’t expect seems impossible. You’re probably saying, “I have a hard enough time figuring out what questions to ask; now you want me to figure out how to ask them in a different way that makes people laugh? You really hate me don’t you?” No, I don’t. Not yet. Now, before you give up on reading this section because you don’t see how you could ever be funny, give me a chance to give you some tools to develop this part of your brain. It will be hard to learn, but very possible. Just like everything else.
In order to grasp humor, you have to think about it analytically. When you are with someone and they say something that makes you laugh, think about why that was funny to you. Why did that specific string of words cause you to spew uncivilized noises out of your mouth? Pay attention to what makes things funny. There are so many different types of humor, but all of them deal with the element of surprise. Consider the TV show, Friends.
Joey is a lovable idiot. We find him funny because he’s endearingly ignorant and sometimes downright stupid. His miscommunications and simplistic views put him in situations that the average human would avoid. Surprise.
Chandler is funny because he’s dry. His comments are digging, ironic, very matter-of-fact and show up at the most unexpected times. He isn't emotional when he says what he says, but our experience of humanity tells us that the things he says should come from someone more emotionally driven and that they should be listened too, not brushed off. Surprise.
Phoebe’s humor is random and quirky. She writes songs about “smelly cat” and calls herself Princess Consuela Bananahammock. We have no idea where her thoughts come from because they are so different to our experience of the world., which is why we find her funny. Her viewpoint is unexpected. Again…surprise.
I could go on, (I know I’m going to get emails from people angry I left out the others) but the point I’m trying to make here is, everyone has a different way of viewing the world and that way also includes some sort of humor. I’m convinced that everyone has a sense of humor. It’s called a “sense” of humor for a reason. We feel when things are funny, and all humans feel. I would argue that saying someone doesn't have a sense of humor is an unfair assessment. However, being able to have a “command” of humor, or the ability to make the connections that humor demands is a different story.
Congratulations! You have a “sense” of humor. You may find silly things hilarious, yet you tend to handle your relationships very matter-of-fact. You may appreciate dry, cutting humor, but you cry every time you watch Happy Feet. This doesn't mean you can’t use the humor you find funny because it goes against your typical nature. The opposite is true. If a person that's known to be very matter-of-fact says something silly, it will be funnier than someone who’s known to be silly saying the same thing.
Discover what humor you find funny, and use it. Know that the obstacle here isn’t “becoming funny”. It’s letting yourself operate confidently in your sense of humor. You have to push aside the feeling of vulnerability that makes you want to operate with what you’re comfortable with. Of course, remember that pride and obsession with image management can really keep you from growth in this area, as well as everything else I’ve discussed so far.
Discovering what makes you laugh is part of how you make others laugh. Understanding that different people enjoy different kinds of humor is a good tool to shape your conversation. Being able to analyze what makes a person laugh gives you the ability to tweak your voice to meet them on the level in which they operate.
Again, this may seem impossible, but it isn’t. It just takes work. Pay attention to people you think are funny and analyze their jokes. What kind of humor do they employ? What people in the group you’re around react to it? You’re good at analyzing, use that gift. However, also know that, just like everything else, there is a balance. The best humor doesn’t come out of a formula; it comes out of a genuine voice that understands three things: humanity, voice and audience.
What You Have that Extroverts Don’t
So far, our discussion on conversation has focused on ways to “make” conversation that are typically inherent to extroverts. It’s time for you to be encouraged, because you have abilities inherent to you that you can use for conversation that extroverts oftentimes don’t have. So, pat yourself on the back, then go sit somewhere quietly and enjoy knowing that you’ve got something seventy five percent of the world doesn’t.
A. A Command of Thought
I’ve laid out a bunch of concepts for you on how to “make” conversation. A typical extrovert will read these concepts, consider them briefly and move on. You, however, will think about them to the point where you can tell me how many times I used the word “however.”
In conversation, you have the power to think and analyze, and if used right, you can make assumptions and conclusions that can bring you into deeper conversation. You may take longer to process things, but you can offer people insights that extroverts will often miss because they typically let their mouth talk instead of their brain. Consider Gandalf, he’s an introvert, but no one views him as the shy guy in the corner. He was very thoughtful and quiet, yet he commanded the respect of the entire fellowship because of his wisdom and ability to be lighthearted, yet firm.
If you use your gift of thought well, it can push you to conversations that are extremely meaningful. However, if you let your thought take over, no words will be good enough and you will never speak.
B. A Deep Understanding of Exhaustion
A good thing about your wiring is that you can understand the people who feel the heavy burden of life. You can relate to exhaustion and tiredness and therefore use that to sympathize with others who are typically put on the sidelines. When I’m having an extroversion day, I’m typically not paying attention to people who aren’t entering into my tornado of happy. Though you may be happy, you aren’t flying around the room with a party hat on and blowing a kazoo like I am. You can use your collectedness and overarching view of the situation to keep people from feeling like they are misfits for feeling heavy and aloof. When my extroversion tornado accidentally carries them away, you can pull them back down and give them the comfort that I can’t at that moment.
Typically, you feel most comfortable in one-on-one settings, so if you are in a large group, find that one person to talk to. You can concentrate on them and make them feel important and genuinely cared for. People who feel the need to/can talk to everyone may be well-liked, but they are missing the benefits of being able to concentrate on one conversation. I know that I sometimes feel pulled to talk/listen to everyone else when I am talking to someone, and I’m sure that affects the level of honesty and enjoyment in my conversation. This isn’t a justification for you to attach yourself to one person at a party, but it does mean that instead of having lots of small conversations you can have a few good conversations. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about finding the one person you know in the group. That action has validity in hard situations, but it’s not going to help progress your ability to meet new people. If you want to grow, if you want to be a better introvert, you need to force yourself to do the hard and exhausting work of putting yourself out there. Just remember, you don’t have to do it all the time. Your favorite couch will never leave you unless you give it away.
I hope this article was an encouragement to you. Again, let me reestablish that I’m not trying to “fix” your introversion and I’m not assuming that all introverts don’t know how to have conversation. I’m also not assuming that all introverts want to be good at conversation. I just wanted to make a bridge between two groups of thought that seem to be opposed. It’s my opinion that everyone should strive to meet in the middle (ambiverts are perfect, what can I say?), not because either extroversion or introversion is bad, but because being in the middle offers the best benefits of both sides.
Now, go workout your conversation muscles armed with a few of the secrets of extroverts. It may be awkward, but don’t let that stop you. Everyone has to be the scrawny kid in the gym at some point in life. However, if you keep working out/improving your workouts, you will turn into the buff (maybe lean, depends on your genetics) guy that’s respected. If you stop working out because you’re scrawny, then you are shooting yourself in your puny size -1 foot. Don’t do that. Repeat after me: “My couch of aloneness will always be there, but opportunities to connect with other humans aren’t as sure and I will take them when they are given to me.”