The two-introvert problem

Can two quiet types go on a date without excruciating embarrassment?

Published September 15, 2006 10:40AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a lifelong introvert. Somewhere along the line, I picked up enough social cues to fool most people into thinking I'm a good talker, but the truth is that I'm exhausted by social interaction and am happy spending much of my time alone.

I prefer spending time alone to light dating -- it's less tiring. That said, I enjoy being in serious or steady relationships. Right now, I'm single, but am very interested in a friend of a friend. He's very intelligent, thoughtful, funny and unique in all the right ways. He likes me too -- he has made it obvious to our friends and, in his way, to me, too.

The problem is that we have pretty similar levels of introversion. We're both more comfortable talking about highly complex theoretical issues (he's a Ph.D. student, and I'm a theory nerd) than we are doing the verbal waltz promoting typical flirtation. As a result, we are painfully awkward around each other. We've both tried to have get-to-know-you conversations, but the interactions end up being painfully stilted -- even when we're both inebriated.

The last time I dated an introvert, I played the drama queen. In exchange for his putting up with my emotional outbursts, I mommied my then boyfriend. That's the only way I know how to interact romantically with an introvert -- and I'm uninterested in repeating it.

That leaves me in the dark. I find myself caring about this person deeply even though I don't know him well. I really want to ask him out on a date, but I'm afraid that it will turn out be fatally awkward because I'm unwilling to play the role of the talkative self-explorer (which would enable him to stay in his comfort zone as the questioner). Is there a solution? Like a library date where we both read books and occasionally throw each other shy glances? Do I just need to swallow my fear, step out and express myself even though it's about as comfortable as walking naked through glass wool insulation? Or is it really true that an introvert needs to date an extrovert, a serious person needs to date a lighthearted one, etc.? Am I whispering up the wrong tree?

Too Shy to Bark

Dear Too Shy,

That's a really interesting question.

Apparently what we have here is an area of human interaction -- courtship -- so completely colonized by extroverts that even an intelligent and thoughtful person such as yourself is only dimly aware that there might be alternatives.

And yet there must be alternatives. Otherwise, introverts would never reproduce. And I refuse to countenance the notion that these alternatives just take the form of painfully awkward reenactments of extroverted styles.

There must be another way. For instance: I'm not sure if you were being sarcastic or not, but the library date sounds perfectly reasonable to me. As does the bookstore date. As does just being silent with each other.

The other day I watched an attractive young couple come into a cafe. The young man went to the counter and got some coffee drinks. The woman sat at the table. The young man came back and they sat drinking their coffee drinks. They looked at each other. They looked at the table. They looked around the room. They drank their drinks. They were quiet. They seemed comfortable with each other, and yet there was also a kind of intensity in the air. They didn't say a word the whole time they were there.

I wondered what was going on. I thought they might have just had a fight, or maybe just made love, or perhaps someone they knew had just died.

But perhaps -- and this is what is most intriguing -- perhaps this was nothing unusual at all. Perhaps they were introverts who, recognizing that they had to be out among the draining hordes, decided to contain their energy rather than filling the air with chatter. Perhaps they were together in a cafe and that was enough. Maybe it was enough to simply sit together.

Had I not been observing, their silence might have gone unnoticed, as the other people in the cafe were intent on each other and on their conversations, or their laptops or their books.

Now, it's true that introversion is not the same thing as silence at all. It's not that introverts don't like to talk. What I'm suggesting, though, is that introverts must find ways to insulate themselves from the effects of a crowded, draining world, and one of those ways is to consciously resist the felt pressure to chatter. I would encourage you to explore the boundaries of what is permitted to two people who simply like each other and want to be together. Why should you have to pretend to be extroverted?

What you need, perhaps, is a manifesto, an explicit declaration granting you existential permission.

Maybe something like this:

"Whereas we are both introverts and do not care for small talk, finding it on the whole a trivial and demeaning pursuit; and Whereas we have spent our lives feeling inadequate to the task of small talk when in reality we feel that small talk is simply stupid and unattractive and do not care to participate in it; and Whereas rather than openly attack the majority for indulging in small talk we have patiently tried our best to imitate it, however unskillfully, and have never received our due for such selfless and humiliating attempts to make extroverts feel less uncomfortable with their shallow and meaningless lives; and Whereas neither one of us really cares whether the other can skillfully imitate the small talk of others anyway; and Whereas being highly intuitive we perceive plenty about the other person without having to go through the tedious process of a rote question-and-answer conversation, which moreover we would find nearly obscene in its deadly obtuseness; and Whereas we are two free human beings freely choosing to associate in the manner that suits us both; and Whereas we feel confident that if we spend some time together we will, being each of us intellectually nimble, in due time find ample ground for conversation;

Therefore be it resolved that, finding some initial interest in each other, we will commit to spending a sufficient amount of time together without either of us forcing upon the other any conventional, preconceived notions, with particular care not to assume any of the rote behaviors associated with the "dating" mode, and pledge moreover to give due consideration to any and all modes of togetherness including silent trips to the library, the viewing of movies without comment, mutual reading, meals taken in relative silence, long drives during which little is said, and, further, given that our thoughts, when voiced, often are of a complex and many-faceted variety requiring relatively lengthy elucidation, we pledge that should such thoughts begin to be voiced, the one who is listening will provide the one who is speaking ample and necessary time in which to complete such thoughts, and will provide such periodic promptings as might be necessary to reassure the other that in spite of the radically compressed norms of extroverted conversation he or she is not in fact going on too long but is actually enlarging on the subject in a manner that is exceedingly pleasing in its richness and detail."

I figure that might alter the context sufficiently so you can just relax and be who you are.

It's sort of amazing, is it not, that just such an explicit set of alternate assumptions on behalf of introverts has not heretofore been widely promulgated? Could that be because the extroverted majority forces its arbitrary mode of behavior on us with such overwhelming and yet invisible force? And could this be analogous to the way that assumptions about gender and race were once so powerful and all-encompassing as to act upon us invisibly?

And then one day it was all painstakingly disassembled and laid out on the floor before us, and we saw that what we had once considered "natural" was nothing more than the half-baked assumptions of a tyrannical majority.

So make up your own set of assumptions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked