Introverts And The Art of Friendship

Be A Friend copyReposted from September 16, 2013:

A little background: The post was inspired by one of Matt Walsh’s blog posts: I’m An Introvert and I Don’t Need To Come Out of My Shell.

Matt raised a lot of good points. The readers who commented on his blog raised even more. I started to respond, but the response grew to where I realized I should really post it on my blog instead of his! So…this:

How does an introvert make friends?

How does anyone, for that matter, make friends?

Do introverts do it differently from extroverts?

Do introverts really need friends?

Few of us are 100% introverted or 100% extroverted. We consist, in varying proportions, of a mix of traits that are considered to be one or the other.

I consider myself an introvert, but some days I really need to see people. Not large, noisy groups of people, but a few very good, one-on-one interactions.

I can be (some days) that stranger who says hi and attempts small chitchat with other people. I’m not looking to irritate you–I’m looking for a way to connect. I see so few people now because of my physical limitations due to chemical sensitivities. I can’t go where there are crowds or do hardly anything that involves a crowd, and rarely am I sufficiently well enough to even risk attending church.

I’m perfectly happy to listen if you want to take the conversation down a deep philosophical road and discuss the nature of …ants or trees, or snow! I might even have something worthwhile to say.

I’m not usually lonely, but–there are those days when I just need a little face-time, and if I can’t see those people I consider my friends, I’m perfectly happy to try to make a new one.

Some days, I’ve been exposed to chemicals in my environment that rob me of significant higher brain function, and all I can come up with are the dumbest things to say–and I know they’re dumb, but I need to connect, so I say them anyway in the hope that the other person on the receiving end will be understanding of the good intent behind them, and will find a way to conduct a conversation with me anyway. Some days are horribly humiliating that way!

But I’ve met and known plenty of people who make small talk, too, who couldn’t be bothered to listen to anything the other person (including me) had to say. They make it clear that what I say say totally bores them, and they can’t wait to interrupt me or be distracted by anything or anyone else.

This is not a personality trait associated with either introversion or extroversion: this is bad manners and rudeness. And that is a person who has never had their nearest and dearest sit them down and pointedly explain (in love, of course) that a conversation requires give and take; that to properly hold a conversation, it is not only necessary to talk, it is also necessary to give the other person time to talk as well, and to really listen to what they are and are not saying. It’s a shame really, and not a reflection on who I am as a person–or who you are–when we run into them, and they treat us with disrespect. It’s a reflection on them and their lousy upbringing.

I have had nationals from other countries complain to me at length that this is a common American failing: that we are so convinced that we’re the only ones with anything worthwhile to say that we can’t be bothered to hear what anyone else might have to tell us, even if it means the difference between life and death. They chalk it up to arrogance, or being in too much of a hurry, or not having a good upbringing. Sometimes they’re right on all counts!

There is an art to getting to know strangers: it usually (but not always) begins with inconsequential chitchat, with looking for safe common ground on subjects where they’re unlikely to have feelings invested before moving on to more iffy subjects. Talking about the weather might lead to talking about that person’s garden or lawn, or upcoming game of golf or some other sport they participate in. I could care less about sports, but I do care about the people who enjoy them, so I’ll listen to sports-talk and (try to) ask intelligent questions. Sports-talk, if you both have children playing the sport, might lead to a discussion of family, and to discovering other areas of commonality–maybe even a discussion of spiritual matters as church attendance (or lack thereof) is brought up.

It might even lead to a philosophical discussion on ants or cracks in the sidewalk, or any other number of matters that might be of mutual interest to a pair of introverts.

If a conversation goes well, you’ve made an acquaintance that you might encounter again with mutually agreeable results. If multiple conversations down the road, you find yourself seeking out this person on a regular basis and vice versa, then you’ve made a friend.

If you’re talking to someone from Africa or the Middle East, you can skip the talk about the weather and sports, and go straight to asking about family. It is even considered bad manners not to ask about family first.

If you’re talking to someone from America, discussing movies or books is an alternative to sports, depending on who you’re talking to.

If you’re Greek, and you meet another Greek (I’m not, but I have observed this), it is expected that you will spend at least fifteen minutes trying to establish which city or province the other person’s family came from, and if you have relatives in common, who you know in common here, etc. I’ve known people who can keep this kind of fact-sharing going for hours. This also holds true for other countries in Europe, and can even be applied to Mennonites (a lot of them in my family).

But most people can’t and don’t go from zero knowledge of the other person to a friendship that allows discussion of deep matters, and the kind of non-judgmental listening that allows a person to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection. Most people try to test out the waters first with small talk.

Did you know that you can make a friend, though, without ever being able to speak their language? I did this repeatedly when I was a child, when I lived among people who spoke languages that were all different from mine. It’s amazing how far you can go with a friendly gesture and a smile. Before very long, at least one party to the transaction is learning the other party’s language–if they’re motivated enough, and I was–

But we grow up and become self-conscious and afraid to connect, and we tend to lose that willingness to reach out and be vulnerable…

What about you? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How do you make friends?

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