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The Introvert Equation: Why small talk can be difficult and what can help

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January 10, 2015 by Treina Aronson

A common myth surrounding introverts is that they are intrinsically misanthropic. Yes, there are misanthropes who are introverts, but extroverts can also dislike and distrust humanity. This being said, it is understandable why the terms get intertwined. Though introverts typically enjoy deep and meaningful one-on-one conversations, small talk is often the bane of their existence. Because the avoidance of small talk can lead to social withdrawal, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that introverts just don’t like people. Nothing can be further from the truth.

First off let’s understand what introversion and extraversion are all about…

Put simply, introversion and extraversion are terms describing personal energy capacities and resources. These personality terms answer the questions of what energizes you and what depletes you. For example, an extrovert recharges their batteries by engaging with others, whereas, introverted people replenish their energy with acts of solitude. Likewise an extroverted person’s energy can be depleted by hours spent alone whereas an introverted person will feel depleted from extended or too many personal interactions. Put another way, introverts are sensitive to over-stimulation whereas extroverts have a limited capacity for isolation. 

What’s up with small talk?

Often introverted people feel shame over the difficulty they have in making small talk and attribute it to social deficits. While social awkwardness can come from avoidance and withdrawal patterns, it can also be a matter of supply and demand.  Because introverts enjoy meaningful conversations over small talk, they can become “bored”, “disinterested” or “tongue-tied” when faced with obligatory chatting. Though introverts often feel guilty about these feelings, being turned off by informal conversations about unimportant topics when you have a dwindling energy supply makes sense; it’s a matter of conservation. Introverts have a limited supply of energy for social interactions. If the energy demand is greater than the supply (too many social engagements) introverts will need to either withdrawal completely or conserve energy by exercising prudent choices in social activities.

The unfortunate dilemma this creates for introverts is that small talk is typically the path to get to those deeper conversations they crave.  How can introverts resolve this quandary?

One way is to know your energy capacity. As an introvert you need to know how much is too much. This will require keeping a record of your weekly social engagements. Begin by creating three columns. In the first column write out a description of the activity. In the second column list if it was a high-energy or low-energy event.  And in the third column briefly describe how you felt during and after. At the conclusion of the week, summarize the overall impact the social activities had on your sense of wellbeing. Lastly, we are better able to face challenging situations when our basic needs are met. Things like hunger and fatigue also deplete our energy. Note any vulnerabilities that may also contribute to energy depletion.

I’ll give you an example…

During Week #1 you attend two social engagements. The first engagement is an hour and a half Sunday brunch with two good friends whom you share meaningful conversation.

You classify this as low-energy because you have a well-established relationship with these people, the group was small and it was a limited time frame. While it was hard to get out of the house, it was all worth it once you saw the two friendly faces. You felt good in sharing recent events with your friends and after you even felt a little spike in your energy.

Description Energy Level How I felt
Brunch w/ Sally & Lisa Low Good/slight increase in energy
     
Summary:
Vulnerabilities:

 

The second engagement was an after-hours work event which lasted three hours. In the large crowd there were only a handful of faces you recognized and you spent most of the evening attempting to make small talk with strangers.

You classify this as a high-energy event. You felt depleted just thinking about the required work activity. Once you were there it took a lot of energy to engage in small talk. On the drive home your body felt limp with exhaustion and you couldn’t wait to zone out on TV before collapsing into bed.

Description Energy Level How I felt
Brunch w/ Sally & Lisa Low Good/slight increase in energy
Work after-hour party High Exhausted and brain dead
Summary:
Vulnerabilities:

 

At the end of the week you summarize your findings.

Description Energy Level How I felt
Brunch w/ Sally & Lisa Low Good/slight increase in energy
Work after-hour party High Exhausted and brain dead
Summary: Brunch was great! Even though the work party was taxing, by the next day my energy felt back to normal
Vulnerabilities: 

 

Lastly, you note your vulnerabilities.

Description Energy Level How I felt
Brunch w/ Sally & Lisa Low Good/slight increase in energy
Work after-hour party High Exhausted and brain dead
Summary: Brunch was great! Even though the work party was taxing, by the  next day my energy felt back to normal
Vulnerabilities: Very hungry at the work party, few vegetarian food options

 

During Week #2 you have three engagements: another work activity, a friend’s birthday party and a family dinner. All three are high-energy and leave you feeling so depleted, you have a two-day migraine and it isn’t until the next week before you feel your energy gets restored.

During Week #3 you have no activities.

During Week #4 you have just one activity. Though it is with strangers and you are obligated to chit-chat you find yourself handling the situation pretty well.

You continue to chart your activities and determine that two to three activities, as long as they are not all high-energy, is all the reserve you have available. You also note that it is easiest for you to engage in small talk when it is the only activity of the week or the previous event was low-energy. And from now on you remind yourself to reduce your vulnerabilities by bringing a bag of nuts and dried fruit in your purse for after-hour work events.

It’s important to remember that this is a subjective exercise and it is up to each person to draw their own conclusions about the information they collect. Despite introverts having commonalities in energy, individual capacity levels differ even when faced with the same series of social events. Another person could conclude from the hypothetical data presented that one activity is optimal and to always avoid more than two events in a week. In the end you will need to feel your way through it. 

In addition to helping you to engage in small talk, knowing your energy reserve, can help you avoid shameful interpretations when you don’t do as well with small talk or when you feel exhausted by events that extraverts find exhilarating.

Tags: introversion, introverts, small talk,