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16 September 2006 @ 01:04 am
Dating among introverts  
Hi everyone. I came across this letter on Salon.com about dating among introverts and thought some of you may find it interesting, so I'm posting it below. Enjoy!

The two-introvert problem

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

By Cary Tennis

Sept. 15, 2006 | 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.

If you have a Salon.com subscription, you can read the letter and readers' responses (which are sometimes interesting) here:
In the end, everything is a gag.auzjeweii on September 16th, 2006 07:17 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing that!
marybagainmarybagain on September 16th, 2006 08:04 am (UTC)
I ought to a natural for a "library date" but it has never happened (so far!) - but I like the change of context approach. I think it is important to be just who you are and trying to be other will never work in any relationship situation.
You! Down in front!painbrain on September 16th, 2006 08:45 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. It gave me a lot to think about.

Personally, I thought the advice was off the mark. For one, the columnist pointed out that introverts don't enjoy small talk because of its bluntness, but I find having to draw up some kind of manifesto to be "nearly obscene in its deadly obtuseness." I mean, I can see where that can smooth things and simplify matters, but to spell things out like one would in a business contract is decidedly unromantic. And the suggestion that activities be conducted in near silence was ridiculous. It didn't seem like he understood the difference between not talking about day-to-day matters and not talking at all. Particularly in the case described in the letter, it seems like given a bit of time alone, two introverts with similar interests could find some great things to talk about and sustain a good, long conversation.

Furthermore, the columnist's anti-extrovert attitude did not sit well with me. I do agree that introvert behavior is not very well understood or encouraged, but to express that extroverts lead lives without depth or meaning is to make a baseless statement. Even if that was just some sarcasm I didn't get, his notion that the big bad extroverts were really out to get us poor victimized introverts made his stance clear.

If I were the one giving the advice, I would tell Too Shy to just swallow (his/her) pride and ask the guy out. I realize how unpleasant and nerve-wracking doing that would be, but COME ON, it's silly to expect relationship stuff is easy, introvert or extrovert, so suck it up. If the guy is interested in the letter writer, the pay off should be worth some discomfort. I do agree with the columnist that a library date would probably be the right thing to do, though. To add some interaction, they could actually, I don't know, talk about what they were reading afterward.
Mellyamellyjc on September 17th, 2006 04:41 am (UTC)
Agreed. What was that movie..."Must Love Dogs" where the guy just broke through all the BS and started asking deep philosophical questions. Why can't we do that? If both parties are introverts, and there's a base understanding of not needing social standards and can just enjoy each other and the interesting conversation, then go for it.

Perhaps interestingly, my own courtship as an example. My FH is INTP. We met online and became friends talking on the phone. Of course you can skirt around social norms on the internet and break directly into the interesting conversations, without having to worry about the schmutz on your face and body language and all that.

Our first meeting in person was browsing through records. No eye contact, just comments about records. After that was just a late night drive and talking, and our first official date was a movie, where no talking was required.
Princess of the Nightnight_princess on September 17th, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC)
> to spell things out like one would in a business contract is decidedly unromantic.

It depends on how it's done and who's doing it. Being an introvert doesn't mean that one can't have a certain charm and style about them. I know people who can do that and come off as cute, funny, and sexy in the process.

> And the suggestion that activities be conducted in near silence was ridiculous.

Certainly not all activities -- communication is vital to a relationship. Obviously, the couple in Starbucks must talk to each other at some point. However, it can sometimes be nice to spend time together without talking, quietly enjoying the other's presence for a few stolen minutes at a busy coffee shop. The whole "the world doesn't matter when we're together" aspect can be very intense and romantic. Then again, I think relationships need to be at a more advanced stage to pull that off. I think Cary was merely trying to give Too Shy different points of view.

> two introverts with similar interests could find some great things to talk about and sustain a good, long conversation. [...] to express that extroverts lead lives without depth or meaning is to make a baseless statement.

Completely agreed, but I also read those as hyperboles intended to drive home the point that people don't have to talk to each other all the time and that there are alternatives. Obviously, two people have to be able to talk to each other in order to have any sort of relationship. (On the other hand, I also think that two people have to be able to be silent with each other in order to have any sort of advanced personal relationship.) The part about extroverts I take as stereotypical "introvert power" rhetoric aimed at those who seem to need the "patriotism" to accept that introversion "belongs". While I think it's wrong, many people seem to have a common affliction that requires vilification of those outside their group before they believe that their own group has a valid identity.

> I would tell Too Shy to just swallow his/her pride and ask the guy out.

Pride? Isn't it usually lack of self-confidence that prevents people from asking others out? "Just ask the guy out" is far easier said than done, and I don't think telling Too Shy that would help. Besides, if she didn't do it herself already, it isn't her, and I think the "be who you are" advice is very important.

Tricks to helping Too Shy may be to (a) break the misconceptions she has about dating that are holding her back and (b) find her areas of expertise / power / strength and help her use them. "B" requires a lot of interaction; Cary is concentrating on "a".

I think the basic problem "Too Shy" has is an assumption that she holds, which shows up in the part about "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)". I think Too Shy is basically saying, "PhD guy is comfortable using T, but I'm not comfortable pretending to be F so he can use his T." In that light, I think your part about the library date and "talk about what they were reading afterward" is right on -- Too Shy needs to remember what she's comfortable talking about and find a reason / motivation / catalyst to talk about them.

Wandering around the library together and allowing the various topics to trigger conversations might be the way to do it. For example, as they walk into fiction, she might comment on her favorite authors and titles. Coming across the train session, maybe she could mention siblings or friends with train obsessions, and in the travel section, she might mention places she's dreamed of going. Then, she might follow him to his favorite sections and ask questions about his interests. Doing that might work to trigger conversation on his part too. A library date can be a great way to explore if / where chemistry might take place between two people.
ex_greymaide85 on September 16th, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC)
I've always pretty much dispensed with small talk altogether and stuck with the fun theoretical stuff. Who says you have to talk about the weather?

I remember fondly my first date with my now husband: we talked about programming neural networks in MATLAB.

I spent a date with another introvert talking about writing, literature, and neo-classical music.

Fuck meaningless extrovert "get to know you" questions. I want to talk about shit that matters.
Loki: zoraktricstmr on September 26th, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
and you know...
not all extroverts talk about meaningsless crap either.. my first conversation with my life partner of nearly 7 years started at 2:30am after we got back from a club where we had been dancing and lasted until 7 in the morning. She is an ESFP and I'm INTJ and we talked about life, our histories, our families, what we did, what we enjoyed...

There are tons of meaningful conversations that you can have if you stick to some of the existential topics... like:
who are you?
where do you come from?
What do you want in life?
What is important to you? and why?

A Lady Born Under A Curse: nashla_veuve_chibi on September 16th, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
My fiance was pretty much an introvert, though not to the extreme. We always had something to talk about, though, I think mostly because we weren't afraid the other would think we were weird for bringing up a certain subject, even out of the blue. But a lot of times we just hung out in silence, and were totally comfortable with that.
Xanspiritonparole on September 16th, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC)
"Introverted" does not mean "lacking in social skills" and "extroverted" does not mean "shallow and obnoxious." The real problem, I think, is that some introverts are also extremely guarded (as are some extroverts) and that combination of introversion and reticence can make connecting with that person extremely difficult. My parents are both introverted, but while my mother is extremely guarded, my father is extremely open. This creates a balanced dynamic.
Sidereasiderea on September 17th, 2006 05:20 am (UTC)
Show of hands! Who remembers this scene from "A Beautiful Mind" (2001)?
Nash: "I don't exactly know what I am required to say in order for you to have intercourse with me. But could we assume that I said all that? I mean essentially we are talking about fluid exchange right? So could we go just straight to the sex."
marybagainmarybagain on September 17th, 2006 09:18 am (UTC)
Nothing like the direct approach!