Oct 10 • 12M

Here's why introverts hate small talk

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Bhekani Khumalo
Impactful ideas that challenge my thinking. I hope they'll challenge yours too.
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I am an introvert and I love it! I also know many other introverts. In fact, I really love meeting other introverts and learning about all the uniquely introverted experiences they have. Despite how it might initially appear, introverts are everywhere, about 25% - 40% of the population. Our quiet approach to life and our need for solitary time aren’t flaws, they’re gifts.

However, as an introvert, it’s not always easy to realise how wonderful you are. We live in a world that is designed for and by extroverts. As a result, extroverts get to define everything. Being loud is often mistaken for being confident and happy. The job scene is increasingly characterised by open-plan offices, big networking parties and small talk around the office cooler or coffee machine is glorified. For those who can’t blend with this, it’s easy to feel left out.

Unfortunately, extroverts also get to define us as introverts. But their definitions and perceptions of us are mostly wrong. I’ve been in many awkward situations where I’m completely comfortable with silence only to have someone persistently trying to break that silence with small talk—many flights and bus rides come to mind. I’ve sometimes responded to these hugely uncomfortable situations by removing myself or putting on headphones that aren’t playing anything just to signal that I don’t want to be a part of this. Given how liberally I talk about this, I’ve had more than a few people reprimand me for being antisocial or trying to encourage me to talk to people more and to stop being rude. I’ve gotten questions like, “What’s the matter with small talk?”, “Are you shy?”, “Do you hate people?”.

These are questions that introverts deal with every day. We are painfully misunderstood. Even the Oxford dictionary butchers the definition of introvert and defines us as being shy:

introvert

noun: introvert; plural noun: introverts

/ˈɪntrəvəːt/

  1. a shy, reticent person.

    • PSYCHOLOGY

      a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things.

adjective

adjective: introvert

/ˈɪntrəvəːt/

  1. another term for introverted.

So today I want to talk about this strange person called an introvert; What goes on in our minds? Why are we the way we are and, specifically, why do we hate small talk?

Introverts vs Extroverts.

I’m an introvert. Yet, I speak in public a lot and I really enjoy it. I give my opinion in open forums and in many spaces you might find me speaking more and louder than anyone else in the room. This is only surprising to people who don’t understand introversion and confuse it with shyness. I’m not shy at all.

That said, when I’m in social spaces that have people I don’t know, I blend into the background. Many people see this and think I have little to say. I have lots to say. But if in that situation, you ask me to mingle with the crowd and make small talk with some random people, I would absolutely dread it. I’d rather leave than do that. It would honestly be a little terrifying to me. But if you ask me to get up in front of all those people on a stage and lead a discussion for three hours, I’d be really excited and I can do that almost effortlessly. Again, this is only surprising if you confuse introversion with shyness. There’s a statement that Jerry Seinfeld made about being a comedian that explains really well what it’s like to be a non-shy introvert.

“I can talk to all of you but I can’t talk to any of you.” — Jerry Seinfeld

Of course, there are shy introverts, just like there are shy extroverts. These two things are not related.

Introverts, like anyone else, can find socialising fun. But while parties and big gatherings leave extroverts energised, introverts need to recharge after some time. Away from everyone. Being an introvert means you draw energy from being quiet and from being alone with your thoughts and your imagination. You like silence, you like to sit in solitude and think. Interacting with people drains you after a while and you need to retreat to your space. That doesn’t mean that you hate interacting with people and you’d rather live alone in the mountains somewhere—although there’s a part of me that finds that quite appealing. It means that you have a limited supply of interacting energy each day, so you’re very circumspect about how you use it. For example, you’d rather use it on one three-hour-long deep conversation with a friend than on many small talk exchanges with strangers.

Extroverts draw energy from interacting with people. They feel most at home when they’re mingling and chatting. I have many friends who are like that. A few years ago, I shared a house with a friend who was like that. Gary was the prototype extrovert. He always had something to say and always wanted to fill the silence with some sort of conversation. He enjoyed talking to strangers and would make friends everywhere. Gary could take a walk outside and come back telling me, “I met a guy there who also likes basketball. In fact, his brother plays for the provincial team and I’m watching the game with him on Tuesday.” And I’d be like, “You were gone for 23 minutes and you already have a sports date with a stranger, how? Why?” That’s completely foreign to me. It would never happen to me, but it happened to him all the time.

I learnt that I’m an introvert in my late teens. Understanding that there’s nothing wrong with me was incredibly liberating. Now, I’m deeply grateful for how I am and I lean into my strengths as an introvert. I listen patiently and make my words matter. I rarely speak without considering what I’ll say, so my words are usually very thought out. And I love spending time alone or sitting quietly on my own, even in busy places. It gives me time to reflect, listen to my thoughts, and recharge. Then, after that, I am ready to reconnect and interact with everyone again. I still like the intensity and chaos of loud spaces and big social gatherings, but it’s in quiet places and small, deep, intimate conversations where I feel truly at home.

None of this is to demonise extroversion. I respect extroverts and I really enjoy relationships with them. I also think I understand them. But I don’t think that the extroverted approach is the only acceptable way of living even though our society is structured that way. The idea that it’s rude or wrong to not be sociable all the time is quite ridiculous and infeasible for introverted people. Everyone is different.

Given this background, here’s why we introverts hate small talk.

3 reasons introverts hate small talk.

It feels insincere.

As introverts, we have a small tank of interaction fuel and we really don’t want to burn it on an insincere conversation. Therefore, we hate insincere conversations. We’re bad at it and we have no interest in it.

We don’t like to talk to someone whom we know isn’t really interested in the discussion. If the conversation is about the weather or the traffic or some other banal thing, then we have the impression that you’re not really interested in that conversation because we’re also not interested in that conversation. It’s just a filler for the silence and we don’t mind the silence. Our finite amount of interaction energy is being wasted on this exchange that is of no interest to either of us. So we’d rather have silence.

Despite popular belief, we don’t hate talking. We enjoy conversation, but it has to be a meaningful conversation. We want to get to know the other person, hear their thoughts and feelings, and get an insight into who they are and what matters to them. That will not happen through small talk that neither of us cares about, so we shut down.

The same thing can happen in a non-small talk conversation. If we’re having what we believe is a meaningful discussion, then we look at you and, while sharing our perspective, we look at you and see disinterest, then we shut down. Not that we’re offended or anything like that, but we don’t want to have the discussion anymore because it’s pointless if you’re not present.

One thing I’ve heard a lot is that you need small talk to help you transition into deeper subjects. Well, this is another case where extroverts want to impose how they work on everyone. As introverts, we’re perfectly happy diving directly into the deep subject. We prefer that. Small talk just impedes more meaningful interactions.

Finally, if we’re in an environment where no meaningful discussion could occur, maybe there isn’t enough time like in an elevator or there’s too much distraction, then we’re happy just staying silent.

We are in our heads all the time.

We are constantly lost in our heads thinking about many things. Sometimes we like to plan the next conversation while we are in there thinking and imagining. Or we’re thinking about many things; God, the news, thermodynamics, cats, like I said, many things. So if you’re taking us out of that, we prefer it if you have a good reason.

Sure, we understand you meant nothing by the small talk. In fact, you were probably trying to be friendly, but we see friendliness in different ways. To us, the friendly thing is to not say anything if there’s nothing meaningful to say and let people continue to be engaged with whatever is going on in their minds. You’re trying to be friendly by making conversation about the weather, but we’re being friendly by not bothering you because we have nothing meaningful to say. Neither of these is right or wrong. You’re being who you are and we’re being who we are.

We’re very analytical about interactions.

As I’ve said already, we’re in our heads a lot. One consequence of that is that we analyse things a lot. We especially analyse our interactions with other people. So we will leave every small talk interaction analysing our performance in the exchange, giving ourselves a grade—usually a poor grade—for how we handled it. The extrovert will probably leave and just continue with his day and not think about it anymore. You may think it’s quite exhausting to continuously think about interactions like that. You’re right, it’s exhausting and we would rather not do it. We prefer to avoid what to us is a high-pressure situation that will linger long and lead to very tough self-analysis. So while silence may be painful to you as an extrovert, it’s not painful to us. The pain for us starts when you break that silence. And that’s another difference between introverts and extroverts. Again, neither of these is right or wrong. You’re being who you are and we’re being who we are.

All this doesn’t mean that we will avoid small talk all the time. It’s a necessary evil in our society, in our jobs, on the dating scene, etc. we understand that. But the main thing I am communicating is that it’s work for us. It takes effort. It’s exhausting and we don’t like it because it doesn’t come naturally to us. Imagine how you would feel as an extrovert if you were forced to sit alone in a quiet room for an hour with no one to talk to and nothing to do. I can do that with relative ease as an introvert because I’ll just retreat into my mind. But you would likely feel a lot of discomfort and an immense desire to get out of that situation and get back into your natural environment. That’s how we feel during small talk.

Hopefully, this helps everyone out there understand the rest of us humans who aren’t extroverts in this highly extroverted world. I highly recommend that you check out Susan Cain’s TED Talk about the power of introverts to learn more about our superpowers.