Too Much Blah Blah Blah in Your Life? I Sympathize

When I was 25 or so, I told both my mother and my boyfriend (at different times) that I wished they talked about half as much.  My mother reacted with shocked indignation.  “That certainly doesn’t bode well for your relationships, does it?” she retorted.  My boyfriend was equally dumbfounded.  “What?” he objected.  “Talking is a human need.  You might as well ask me to sleep half as much.”

Decades before I clearly understood what it meant to have been created as an introvert, I realized I had a limited capacity for taking in casual conversation.  When my inner needle climbed into the red zone, I became cranky and irritated, irrespective of my liking or love for the person who just kept on talking.  If that needle still kept rising, I might experience an acute case of brain-choke, where I could barely listen or respond any more.  But I lacked the background knowledge then to stick up for myself further with my mother or boyfriend, so both episodes fell into the box of Marcia being unreasonable, offensive and rude.

When and Why Introverts Get Conversationally Overloaded

If these scenarios ring bells for you, the first thing to know is that biologically, introverts appear to have a much lower threshold for overstimulation than extroverts do.  The disparity stems from divergent receptivity for neurotransmitters and differences in brain structure.  It appears that introverts come out of the womb with a preference for quieter environments and less chirpy chatter.

And whereas extroverts often talk with others to figure out what they themselves think and feel, introverts are much more likely to process information and events internally, on our own.  We actually talk quite a lot – to ourselves.  We prefer to think things through before speaking instead of saying the first thing that comes to mind and revising from there.  This means that the quantity of utterances from introverts would naturally be less than from extroverts.  And if the ideal conversation consists of 50-50 contributions, introverts might therefore want less from those they talk with.

Yet values factor into the situation also.  Where deep, meaningful informational intake or exchange is concerned, an introvert’s tolerance is much greater than with chitchat that goes on and on and on and on.  Introverts tend to dislike spending time and energy on trivial, inconsequential topics that for others may represent a pleasurable way to pass the time and bond with friends, coworkers or family. 

When there’s a clear purpose to a conversation, such as to settle a point of fact, to compare experiences or wishes, to explore uncertainties or think through a dilemma together, introverts can thoroughly engage and persist in back-and-forth talking.  But when we’re feeling that pleasantries have no point, we prefer to cut them short or ignore them altogether.

As well, introverts may take a dim view of what we see as pretending, especially pretending to care about crusty customs and social niceties.  So while extroverts might theoretically agree that conversational norms and manners are nothing but traditions, they’ll cheerfully go on following the rituals. Introverts tip the scale in favor of authenticity and acting on what we believe.  The result: less politeness.

A Case in Point

While I was writing this post on my shaded lanai in Maui, delighting in a gentle breeze and looking up from time to time to see blue ocean between the palms, a woman carrying a folding chair and towel to the beach stopped and asked me, “I see you here every day on your computer.  Are you working?”  A long pause stretched while I scoured my brain for a more gracious version of “That’s none of your business.”  I came out with “And why do you need to know?”  When she prattled, “Well, if you’re in paradise and you’re working…,” this shot directly into my red zone, and I swatted air with my arm three times, signaling that she should continue on to the beach and leave me alone.  I did not want to hear another word from her.

First, she was a stranger – one who had interrupted my concentration purely to satisfy her curiosity.  From my side of the exchange, that equals no good reason.  Second, she revealed herself as having values quite contrary to my own.  As it happens, I enjoy thinking through an issue like this as much as I like swimming in the ocean every morning with giant sea turtles.  But I have no need to explain or justify that to passersby.  I realize that my reaction counts as nasty within North American mores, but introverts, back me up here! She was disrespectful to intrude on me when I was peacefully minding my own business.

Marcia Yudkin

Marcia Yudkin, who has published personal essays in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Ms. and NPR and has a following for her iconoclastic perspectives on no-hype marketing. She is working on a book on what we can learn from fictional and famous introverts as well as a philosophical autobiography (very much an introvert narrative) called Nothing to Prove: Recovering from Wittgenstein.

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