Our Lips Are Sealed: Understanding Social Introverts

Sometimes I confuse people. It is not unusual for folk to remark that they ‘don’t understand me’. Which (a) is confusing for me, since I don’t set out to willingly be enigmatic (b) I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing.

It is to do with being an introvert. There are two main patterns of non-understanding that happen to me. The first is that people think I’m shy or very quiet…but then I confidently make a witty remark in a social setting and that doesn’t tie in with their perception of me as being socially-withdrawn. Or, people think I’m a fairly extroverted person because I’ve been fairly talkative and appear confident in social situations…then the situation changes and my behaviour changes abruptly, which makes them realise that I don’t completely conform  to their perception of me as an assured extrovert.

I’m a scientist. I think about the world in a logical, science-informed way. I believe that – like a lot of scientists – I have a stereotypical introverted scientist brain, and that I would classify myself as ‘strongly’ introverted. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand introversion, or don’t understand what introversion does/doesn’t involve.

It is for these reasons that there are a coupla things I want you to understand about introverts.


A. Introversion. Shyness. Social Awkwardness.

These are three completely distinct things. Social awkwardness is when you don’t really know how to behave in a social setting – what you should and shouldn’t say to someone. Shyness is when you would like to say something in a social setting…but are too nervous to do so. Introversion is when a social setting takes the energy out of you.

These three traits are not mutually-exclusive, even though individuals can have more than one of them. Just because someone is an introvert it does not mean that they are scared of speaking. There is at least one person I know who calls himself an introvert, but doesn’t seem to realise that his behaviour really comes under the category of social awkwardness.

Although I can be shy in some situations (like most of us can!), I don’t think that a huge portion or me is shy or socially-awkward. I don’t have a problem going to parties when there is a high chance that I won’t know anyone. I recognise social conventions and can read other people quite well.


B. Group Size and Interaction Level

This can definitely be quantified in a scientific equation.

Outspoken-ness of introvert = Familiarity with group members/Group Size (N)

Or whatever. In any case, an introvert with 1 or 2 people they know is going to be chattier than when the conversation is joined by 5 or 6 strangers.

The familiarity thing can not be under-sold. It makes a massive difference to the amount of talking that I do – even if I’ve only met the other people once or twice before.


C. Quiet Pauses

I’m sure I can quantify this one as well:

“The degree of introversion in an individual is directly proportional to the length (t) of pauses before they speak.”

What often happens to me at parties is that the conversation moves on before I have a chance to say what I’ve been formulating in my head. If I’ve got a lot to say then you can hear the new paragraphs beginning. The main indicator I have that someone is an introvert is that there are large pauses in our conversation between what we say and the other person’s response.

That said, I’m often quiet at parties because I like listening to other people’s conversation. I’m OK with enjoying the flow of someone else’s conversation without necessarily seeing the need to interject with some dialogue of my own.


D. The Absence Of Noise.

The stereotypical extrovert is a person who loves rowdy gatherings, who plunges headfirst into chaotic deafening nightclubs screaming “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”. Where are the stereotypical introvert is viewed curled up in a library with books, maybe indulging in a bit of low-volume classical music.

This has to be connected to a difference in noise-level tolerance between introverts and extroverts.

I’m OK with nightclubs and listening to heavy metal at max volume on my laptop: that’s because its only one thing I’m concentrating on, and the noise is very organised. I’m getting progressively worse at coping in loud bar settings (or equivalent) where not only is everything LOUD but there are hundreds of sounds competing with each other discordantly and I can’t hear myself thing, let alone hear what the person next to me is saying. Which makes me think that introverts just have lower noise-tolerance limits than extroverts, or have a harder time de-coupling multiple sounds at once.

E. The Public-Private Sphere

I have a strong aversion to strangers chatting me up. Strong enough that I will say nothing and pretend they aren’t there. People might well assume that I’m not interested in men. Nonsense – I love men! Men don’t get over-excited and exceed my noise-tolerance limits with their high pitched screeching.

It’s to do with the public-private divide. When I’m in Starbucks, buying groceries or at the gym I’m in the public, stranger sphere. In public I keep myself to myself: I’m not sharing a lot of information about myself; I’m keeping a respectful distance from other people who are happily doing their own thing and it would be rude to interrupt. If a Starbucks barista wishes to ask me about my dreadlocks or accent I will naturally oblige them with answers…but I won’t initiate conversations or provide more information than I am specifically asked for.

In the private sphere I’m around people I know and thus willing to share information. Friends I define as the people who I think are interested in hearing unsolicited personal information about me, and won’t begrudge me sharing my feelings and all that crap with them.

A stranger attempting to chat me up or ask me out is a very jarring violation of the public sphere rules. “Oh hey, are you from round here? I like your dreads. You look so interesting – tell me about you.”  This approach is unsolicited 98% of the time – I haven’t even looked twice at the guy, much less had time to decide if I’m like the look of him.

How can guys possibly know if an introvert like me is interested in them, then? Well, if I’ve not gone completely quiet and am staring 10 inches to the left of my foot I’m probably willing to talk to you. If I proactively move into your vicinity and start a conversation with you, then I like you. I’d say that if an introvert comes over to talk to you then that it actually quite a significant thing – friendship or otherwise.



Honestly, I don’t think that introverts are that inexplicable: their behaviour might be subject to more clauses, regulations and exceptions than the average extrovert…but they still make sense to a scientist.

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