When receiving gifts becomes a nightmare.
Quiet Revolutionary Lara Vukelich’s Story
My birthday was last week.
I received two thoughtful gifts from two dear friends. I was grateful they thought of me. They were kind to commemorate my latest trip around the sun.
But here’s the thing: I am a bad gift opener. I have literally practiced my gift-opening face in the mirror with the type of acute examination that should be reserved for preparing to evade a lie detector test. If I put my eyebrows up too high to show surprise and elation, I look…how can I put this?…totally insane. If I focus on crafting a perfectly casual smile, I am convinced I look insincere. I prefer to open my gifts under cover of darkness or, at the very least, alone in my living room.
Gift exchange games aren’t my Super Bowl; they are my metaphorical firing squad. So, yes, I was the only person not to participate in my company’s White Elephant celebration last year. If you’re not familiar, this is the game where everyone brings a wrapped item and then each person, one at a time, chooses a random box to open. In front of everyone. As in, lots of people stare at your face as you unwrap a gag t-shirt or pair of Star Wars socks. If another party-goer steals your gift, you get to relive the fun (read: horror) of publicly selecting and reacting to a new mystery package all over again.
How does one decline to participate in such an event? If you’re graceful, you probably approach the party-thrower discretely beforehand and let them know you have chosen to abstain for a myriad of reasons. You forgot; you got a flat tire on the way to the store; your debit card got stolen. If you’re me, you wait until they are selecting the order in which people will open their gifts and then say, “I DIDN’T BRING A GIFT, THIS IS TOO MANY PEOPLE” at an octave just north of appropriate.
Look, gift givers are excited to see my reaction. I get it. When I choose a fun present for my friends and family, I too gaze upon their faces with hopeful anticipation. I want them to love it! But as an introvert, being on the receiving end of such a gaze makes me feel like I am putting on a performance. Even when I really love a gift and I’m not mustering an artificial smile, the Spotlight Effect is in full force.
Post my White Elephant debacle, I started asking myself how to embark on a future filled with stress-free gift openings and devoid of the anxiety currently associated with trying to master a “love it, mean it” smile.
Here is what I’ve come up with. It may not be foolproof, but it’s a start.
Start saying: “Thank you so much! How thoughtful, I will open this later.” See how that goes. If it gets you out of unwrapping said gift with an audience, always follow up with a meaningful mail/text/phone call to offer specific gratitude (“I can’t believe you remembered I wanted a Bill Murray candle!”).
Be better prepared for possible gift opening situations. I always forget it’s my birthday and am therefore unprepared for being handed a gift bag. It’s not the best strategy.
>Avoid White Elephant parties with more than 10 people. Maybe drink a glass of wine before gift opening begins.
Being a bad gift opener doesn’t make me an unappreciative one. Nor does it make you one, fellow attention-loathers. If all else fails, we can always keep practicing our reaction faces in the mirror. Hey, practice makes improvement.
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Quiet Revolutionary Gregory Peart’s Story
Eight years ago, I attended a small gathering at a neighbor’s house. Before long, I found myself standing in a group of four guys whom I just met at the party. One of the guys was talking about his occupation—automobile engineering. Another guy was very interested because he too was an auto engineer. The third guy knew a lot about car design so he was engaged as well.
My knowledge of auto engineering is about as great as my knowledge of the history of cheese—almost non-existent. All the guys went back and forth in rapid-fire succession. I found myself quietly listening, nodding my head, and feigning interest for at least 10 minutes. Then it hit me: I was subtly being nudged out of the circle. I could have just walked away, but I wanted to get to know them. I wanted to be social. However, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I also didn’t want to appear too naïve before they knew anything about me.
And then it happened. I saw an opening. One of the guys transitioned from engineering to the design of the house he just purchased. I know a lot about real estate, so that was my open window to jump through. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, I decided to take control of the conversation and asked when he bought the house. Then I transitioned to the local housing market. Another guy was interested in selling his house. Then I talked about mortgage rates and the best time to sell. I was contributing. I suddenly found myself in the driver’s seat. They were playing in my sandbox.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably wondered how it is that exceptional conversationalists always know what to say. You may have asked, “Why don’t they ever struggle? Why do I take longer to respond than they do?”
The answer is: They aren’t any smarter than you—they just put themselves in positions to succeed. No one can always have a good response ready for any topic. But the best socializers understand one very simple concept: if you’re in the position of responding to someone else’s question or topic, you’re at their mercy (at least during that moment in the conversation). Conversationalists who initiate the conversation topic always have the advantage over people on the receiving end.
If I called you on the phone right now—right this very minute—I can guarantee myself a major advantage from a conversational perspective. I would plan on telling you my plans to go sailing this weekend. How is that an advantage? you may wonder. By introducing sailing, I’m taking control and kicking off the conversation with one of my own topics, forcing you into a more passive position. You will have to respond and make a connection to my topic and to my statements. It’s not easy for your brain to sort through sailing-related memories in a matter of seconds, especially if you don’t have much to offer on the topic or are thinking about or doing something else, totally unrelated.
I, on the other hand, may have had minutes, hours, days, or even weeks to think about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to initiate that conversation with you. I may, in fact, be a professional sailor. Or I may have had many previous conversations about sailing that helped me develop a giant arsenal of sailing anecdotes, facts, and opinions ready to “float” into any conversation.
The comfort level I have with the topic will manifest itself as confidence. Because you have to react and exert energy, searching for related material on the spot, you will naturally be at a disadvantage and may project a lack of confidence.
Pay close attention next time an exceptional conversationalist converses with you; they are probably initiating most of the topics! The best conversationalists usually direct the show. They aren’t caught off guard or left without anything to say. In those rare cases where they are speechless, they can still ask poignant questions and eventually steer the conversation ship back to where they want it to go.
My life changed when I realized the power of this active mindset.
We all desire more confidence. A shortcut to immediate confidence is simple: go first. Be the first to ask, “Hi, how are you?” Acting first in any situation instantly boosts how confident you appear to others and, in turn, boosts your feeling of confidence. Poor conversationalists are normally reactive as opposed to proactive. They wait for something to happen to them. Exceptional conversationalists go after what they want.
Of course, action comes with risk. Staying passive is much safer and easier. Most people spend time deliberating over the negative possibilities of a potential action. But be careful: too much deliberation leads to overthinking and paralysis by analysis. Many more good things come from trying something as opposed to trying nothing. If you currently lead a passive lifestyle, you may feel that you lack control over your fate and that life happens to you instead of because of you.
It took me years to realize how often I instinctively waited for the other person to go first as if I were not allowed to dictate the conversation. After taking that initial step of acting first, you’ll feel not only an extra boost of confidence but also an infusion of happiness. Because when you act first to direct the conversation, you feel a sense of control. Shifting from a passive to an active mindset can truly change your world.
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We sat down at my tiny table in a huge hall in Paris. “I haven’t been feeling very well lately,” my Japanese customer told me amidst thousands of people roaming the fashion trade show. She just came from Milan, where she also visited shows—places where most conversations consist of no more than how are you? and great!
“So much is going on in the world,” she continued. In Italy, refugees landed on the shores while luxury shows were being held. In her home country, the government wanted to take part in military action for the first time since World War II. It makes you want to skip the superficial chit-chat and look beyond the borders of the fashion world. We are both quiet, thoughtful people working in a loud world. Endless self-indulgence seems to be the norm here. A norm that doesn’t fit everybody.
Fourteen years ago, I started my company. Not because I wanted to work in the fashion industry, but because I wanted to design. It soon turned out my ideas worked really well in leather, including bags. And so I started, without knowing much about the fashion world. It took me quite a while to realize I could leave out a few obvious activities. I mean things that had seemed to be set in stone but did not quite fit my character: PR, trends, endless growth, outsourcing, and, above all, ceaseless sales pitches. They had all seemed so obvious when people told me this was the way to go. But after fourteen years, I know it’s very possible to do things a little differently.
For me, it’s all about making elaborate designs, resulting in good products lasting a lifetime. The work I make is very personal, and I’m deeply connected to the products in the sense that I personally create them with my own hands from beginning to end. Through the years, I have found customers who appreciate this approach and value the details I so tenaciously concentrate on.
While I’m at a trade show, I calmly wait for the customers to visit me. Many of them have been doing so for years. They appreciate the way I work, and I find it a great pleasure to work with them. None of them expect me to give a sales pitch. Rather, they just look for themselves, and we talk after that. Often, we only talk about the work—that’s why we get together after all.
But this time, my Japanese customer and I talked about what’s going on in the world. Not because our work isn’t important to us, but because we are human beings in the world—not isolated from it. And perhaps it’s exactly because we feel so involved that we choose to work the way we do. We won’t single-handedly tackle the global problems, but they determine our views. And that’s what I have to offer: my perspective on the world. A world of real contact, thorough designs, and robust products.
It was a precious moment we had—a real conversation in the middle of a noisy trade show. At the end of the conversation, I gave her the information on my collection. No need to explain anything, really—my designs can tell their own stories. And no need for on-the-spot decisions either. She carefully tucked the papers away to give herself time to think it all through.
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I was a forensic scientist in the NYPD for eight years. I recently left to build a better life in Michigan for my family of introverts. I wrote this the day we bought our house there.
They’ll just see a house.
They won’t see the 21-year-old rookie New Yorker, counting pennies at a kitchen table pulled from the trash. They won’t see tacos for Thanksgiving dinner. They won’t see the student attending college meetings for the free food. They won’t see the five-block walk for a candy bar because the subway stand had them for 50 cents cheaper than the corner store. They won’t see five years spent without a car and six years without cable.
They won’t see the IAB investigations. They won’t read the snarling anonymous letters of false accusations. They won’t hear the quiet of the gym chosen over the negativity of the lunch room. They won’t notice the girl crying in the bathroom at work. They won’t feel the stomach aches while lying in bed. They’ll never know the determination it took.
They’ll see 10 years condensed into one Facebook post. But they won’t see the grit.
They won’t feel the relief of promotions. The quiet tucking away of extra money. They won’t notice how she lives within her means. They won’t see the hope. The formation of the goal and the patience to arrive. They won’t notice the purchase of a Honda over the lease of a Lexus. They won’t hear of the plan to save at a New York rate and spend at a Michigan rate.
They’ll just see a house.
But she? She’ll see a castle. She’ll see 75% less taxes and double the square footage. She’ll see four rooms to sleep in and three rooms to bathe in. She’ll see a two-car garage and a finished basement. A second floor laundry and walk-in closets. She’ll see plans for an office, a library, a bar, and a man-cave. She’ll look out on the back deck and imagine cookouts and cocktails.
She’ll remember the day she left the malcontents behind. The day she walked out the door for the last time, threw her hands toward the sky, and smiled. She’ll remember the lieutenant’s laugh as he scoffed at her plan to move back to Detroit. “I hear it’s a lovely place,” were the sarcastic last words he said to her as he walked away laughing.
He won’t see her smile at his empty life.
She’ll remember her friends. Their gift of endless laughter and the healing of her soul. Days spent at BBQs and nights spent on rooftops. Peruvian feasts and beer gardens. Kind coworkers who used their eyes more often than their mouths. She’ll see chaperones of encouragement and forgiveness of friends. She will harbor gratitude for every little moment of her stupid little life.
They’ll just see a house.
But she will finally—finally—see
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I was a quiet child, one of those highly sensitive children who thought silence was full of wonder, and lovely things worthy of whispers. It was never a problem when I was young. I loved reading and could devote hours at a time to a good book. School was a safe, interesting, and happy place. But everything changed in high school.
It wasn’t that I changed; it was that I didn’t. In the classroom, the rules of engagement were all different. Now, instead of good listeners, teachers wanted assertive, highly vocal students. Learning became a competitive rather than cooperative experience. I grew quieter and quieter. I never raised my hand with a question; I never raised my hand with an answer. I did everything expected of me with the course work, but really, it soon became obvious that shy students were invisible.
It got worse before it got better, but I am getting ahead of myself.
My favorite “academic” high school story happened in 10th grade American history. For one semester, two classes combined, and our teachers represented different sides in the Civil War. My regular teacher, Mr. Sanford, represented the North as General Grant; the other teacher was General Lee. Day after day, they explained their sides of the conflict, argued passionately for their ideals, and acted out the Civil War in first person, in front of us. It was fascinating! I drank in every word. I did the homework but read even more, just for the pleasure of it. I felt totally engaged in the subject.
One day, however, General Lee turned angrily on me. He pointed at me with great emphasis. “You know what you do?” he demanded. I looked back at him without the slightest idea of what he was asking of me. He asked again. And again. I finally ventured a response.
“Blush?” I answered with no confidence whatsoever. As a pale strawberry blonde, I did blush quite easily. “NO!” he thundered. “You stare. You watch every move I make.” He paused for effect and then went on in his booming, authoritative Southern accent. “There are DOERS in life, and there are WATCHERS. YOU watch from the sidelines.” He launched into sharp criticism of students, supposedly like me.
The following day, or maybe the following week, we had the biggest test of the year. Our two teachers warned and encouraged and threatened us. Almost half of the combined class failed. While returning our tests, General Lee ranted and roared at us lazy, good-for-nothing students for a while. Then abruptly, he changed direction. “One student…one student in here actually paid attention, actually listened to the lectures, actually thought about it, actually used some creative reasoning. One! One in 63! While most of you failed, one student scored 100%! I don’t know which one of you performed so beautifully, but I’d like everybody to recognize her now.”
General Lee did not know my name, so when I raised my hand, (from the sidelines) he was visibly surprised. It was a sweet victory. I didn’t say a word, but I’m certain I must have blushed again.
When I joined the speech and debate team on the first day of high school, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I, like many other introverts, balked at the thought of standing up at a podium in front of a large group of people and expressing myself and my arguments. However, I had been pestered by a neighbor, who was part of the team, to join. She said I would be good at it because of my quiet analytical thinking and even promised it would help me “come out of my shell” like it did her. Well, she was a debater, so I was convinced in no time and cautiously joined the speech and debate team. Being part of a team was uncomfortable for me, but the actual tournaments were solo-performance based, which was a hidden blessing.
There is a common misconception that good debaters or speakers have to be fiery, talkative, confrontational, extroverted, etc. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a good speaker has to be well-read and willing to do extensive research. They have to be calculating and thoughtful, creative and sharp. It’s no coincidence that many of the past and present best actors, writers, and leaders have been extremely private and introverted. I hoped to use my introversion as my secret weapon. And it worked! I soon began to advance to elimination rounds at tournaments. In rounds, I was just as persuasive and confident as anyone else, and I knew exactly how to respond to my opponent’s attacks. I won entire tournaments. I even won the top speaker award at multiple tournaments! An introvert—top speaker! The irony!
However, as I still strive for personal success in speech and debate, I remain unchanged. I’m still that quiet boy who sits alone at tournaments, and that surprises many people as if such a debater is not supposed to exist. In a way, I think I’m becoming more introverted as my time with the team continues. The funny thing is that as I became more confident in my speaking ability, I began to feel less pressure to try to be more extroverted in social interactions or school. It’s as if all my years of being taunted by kids and criticized by adults for being too quiet have been swept away. I didn’t forget them. I’m just at peace with them—free to be my introverted self without feeling guilty about what other people think or being insecure about my abilities.
Unfortunately, there is a culture of extroversion that surrounds speech, debate, drama, and other similar activities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but it breaks my heart when I see other introverts join these activities for a few days and then quit because they fear the dominant extroverted personalities around them or what people will think of them.
I definitely have had my share of comments made to me about my involvement in the activity. Just this year, one of my friends had said that I would make a good president after I got a good grade on a test. It was a completely light-hearted statement and just something nice that kids say to each other when someone does something impressive. But then I was shocked when I heard someone else say, “Don’t you have to talk to be president?” That comment just hit home for me, and I’m sure for many other introverts as well. I didn’t reply, of course, but the answer is simple: I might be quiet, but I am not incapable. An introvert can talk. An introvert can lead. An introvert can persuade. An introvert can be passionate. An introvert can be anything they want to be.
There is no designated turf in school, in extracurricular activities, or in the workplace for only certain people. Introverts are business leaders, lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers, and, yes, even presidents. The sooner we realize that, the better we will be as a society. And to all the introverts out there, never fear anything you want to do because introversion is a strength, not a weakness.
I’m a military spouse, which means I move a lot. In the past 5 years, I’ve made two cross-country moves (from DC to San Diego, and San Diego to Virginia). While I’ve gotten used to the logistics of moving and getting myself set up somewhere new, the making friends part is hard for me and probably always will be. It’s even harder since I’m in the throes of finishing my PhD and my days are spent working at home in isolation with myself and my thoughts. I have very few “built-in” ways to meet people, so I have to go out and find friends for myself.
A few months after our last move, I found myself sitting in my yoga class trying not to look awkward as everyone around me was chatting with their neighbors. I would stretch and nervously wait until the moment the teacher silenced everyone to start class. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago—just shy of a year after we moved—and for the first time, I realized I had become one of those people, chatting with my yoga friend about her weekend and her daughter. It felt natural and jarring at the same time—how did I get here? I thought to myself.
As an introvert, I’m not a fan of most social situations. I thrive in small gatherings, game nights at home, and deep, intimate one-on-one conversations. When you meet new people, it can take a while to build the cumulative knowledge you need to seamlessly converse with someone, where you can pick up right where you left off. Connecting with new people is so tough that I usually enter a rationalization period where I try to convince myself that I can go 2-3 years without making any new friends in the new place. I could survive without local friends, right? Just me, my husband, and my dog? Facetime and phone calls with old friends? My illogical musings are quickly shattered when I realize that, yes, I do in fact need friends. This should be obvious to me as a social scientist, yet it gets me every time.
So…how did I go from staring at the clock, waiting for yoga class to start to a year later being a person who catches up with her yogi neighbor? I learned the lesson I’m continually forced to learn as a military spouse: you have to let people in. You have to give and seek out little nuggets of information from other people that allow you to build a connection. It can be as simple as a friendly smile at people you don’t know—be engaging and warm when someone looks in your direction. Compliment someone on their outfit, their hair, their dog’s collar, or their new running shoes. Ask someone if they know of other great yoga classes at the studio, or ask them what they like to do around here.
When you are looking to meet new people or build a group of friendly faces at your gym, you have to look for little ways to start a conversation. It may take 10 of these mini-exchanges before you actually start talking about your lives or your weekend plans, but this is what gets the ball rolling.
Conversely, when people engage with you, let them in. When someone compliments you on your cool new sneakers, tell them where you got them or how you got the most amazing deal on them. When your yoga teacher asks you how your weekend was, give them a specific detail about something you did: “I took my dog to this great little beach, and she loved running around in the waves!” When you provide these little nuggets of information to others, it gives them a way to build on the conversation and follow up with you: “Have you been to this other beach with your dog? I think you’d really love it.” Or: “My daughter and I checked out that Nordstrom sale you mentioned!”
We all know how awkward it can be to talk about yourself or ask someone how their week is going when you barely know them, but this is the trick to building a connection and establishing continuity with people. And slowly but surely, you may make a new friend or at least have a friendly face to chat with when you go to that yoga class.
As difficult as it can be to make new friends, I’m grateful that my life as a military spouse continually gives me the opportunity to practice being vulnerable and letting people in.
My teenage daughter just left for a week to Kiawah Island with her best friend, her dad, and stepmother. As they pulled away from our driveway to go to the airport, I fought back tears, knowing that it would be easier for her if she looked back and saw me smiling.
Many people call me “overprotective,” but I don’t care, and it does not inform my parenting. My sweetie was born six weeks early, and though she spent only a few hours in the NICU, she did emerge highly sensory sensitive. I had to endure years of people telling me to just “let her deal with it” and “you’re babying her” as I adapted and modified her environment to assist her to ease into the world.
I will forever be indebted to two people: the former OT (Occupational Therapist) at the elementary school where I work and my daughter’s 3-year-old preschool teacher. They were the only two people in our lives who had answers and support, not judgment and moral advice. The OT informally diagnosed her with sensory processing disorder (which, up until that point, I had never heard of) and put her on the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol. It changed her/our lives.
The brushing protocol consisted of three times daily dry-brushing of her arms and legs with a surgical scrub brush, along with joint compressions. I watched the relief and anxiety wash away day after day as we used the protocol. She started gagging less on food and started requesting Lunchables and fruit snacks—just like those her preschool friends had in their lunches. No more mandarin oranges and cottage cheese. She began to wear shorts and short sleeves. Prior to that, when I’d try to force her into summer clothing for the summer months, she would scream bloody murder, crying that the “air was hurting” her. She began to sleep through the night. Prior to that, she would wake 5-6 times a night crying for me.
And then there was “Miss Angela,” her angel of a preschool teacher. I still get choked up when I write her name. This woman loved who my daughter was. She accepted her copious tears of missing me, let her carry her yellow blankie everywhere for the entire school day, and knew that time, love, and patience (and the brushing protocol) would allow her to grow beyond those needs. And my daughter did.
And now, I am here, practicing staying—practicing for when she goes off to college. She told me last night, she was most worried that I would just be in a corner, crying, not eating or drinking. I hate that she thinks that of me… Is that who I am to her?
So this week, I need to return to my “before kid” life. Where will I go? What will I do? I need to have stories for her so that she knows it’s okay to leave.
And I need to do those things so I know it’s okay for her to leave and for me to stay.
I’m 20 years old, and I’m a Portuguese student about to move to Cambridge, UK, to study drama. I hold a vast world inside of my mind. There were times when I was alone in my home and I’d start imagining myself somewhere else, imagining as if there was a perfect place just for me. And that’s when I’d feel agony because I didn’t feel right where I was. I would cry over that, that strange feeling of dis-belonging, a need to run away from everything I knew and enter into something or some place that would perfectly fulfill me. It was a utopia, of course. My daily anxious feelings don’t help either—every thought of self-doubt consumes me every single time.
Then, the performing arts came as a sort of liberation in my life. With every drama group I’d join, every time I would step on stage, the voice that was locked inside me screaming to get out was finally and wildly released on a theater stage. It was as if I was telling the world: “I’m here. I belong here.”
Though I’m reserved socially and speak only when I truly think I have something important to say, when I’m about to perform in front of a big audience, nothing holds me back. I’m not afraid of their reactions; in fact, I want reactions. I’m not afraid of being eccentric or even obscene. I’m being seen and heard, and I love it.
As I’m growing up, there are decisions about life to be made and day-to-day activities to be done, and there is little time to torture myself with these thoughts of self-doubt that creep into my mind. But I’m not going to lie, they are still there, every single day—only it’s up to me to not be my own enemy and listen to them.
Instead, I’ve decided to make my life’s journey joyful. I will not listen to the self-doubt if I can help it. And now, I’m taking the next step towards joy by moving to the UK to graduate as an artist, to work as one, and travel a lot.
Am I afraid of going forward? Hell, yes. But the fear doesn’t overshadow my strong desire to see what I can make of my path, of where I can go, and of what I can conquer. I’m pursuing my dream, I’m going to learn and to discover. And sometimes, I will still be alone with myself and with that screaming feeling of dissatisfaction. But other times, I will get out of my head and just go, probably always in pursuit of that place that doesn’t exist, that feeling of complete fulfillment that probably will never come. And that’s okay because I don’t know anyway what I would do if I found it.
I’m Manuela Ribeiro, an introvert living in Portugal. I was raised in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). I went to school there, and I had an English education. After my dad’s death, I found myself flying into Portugal at the age of 12. Many things have happened in my life, and what amazes me is that all this time I thought I was different, and now I realize I was right.
As a young girl, I felt ashamed of being quiet. My mother was always comparing me to other noisy kids and wishing that I could be like them once in awhile. Books were my best friends, and all I wanted to do was to stay in the library and read, read, read. I liked music and dancing, and I could be funny and playful, but only in very small groups.
Despite all odds, I always lived according to my values, and I felt this invisible strength inside me. There was this courage, this inner silent power that kept me going. When I focused on something, I didn’t stop till I achieved it. Many times I was misunderstood: people picked on me and called me a snob (among other names). Although it hurt, I knew I had the power to carry on, and I did. Two years ago, I decided to become a Certified Coach, which I did. And right after that, I wrote my first book, Desistir Não É Opção (Giving Up Isn’t an Option), which was self-published.
Now, here is the thing: People who truly know me know I’m an introvert. But I can tell you that people I meet can’t tell the difference unless I’m in a very big group or at a party. That’s when others might be able to see my more introverted side kick in. I like observing, asking questions, and going outside a party now and then to restore my level of energy.
I believe one day, I will be on a stage speaking to lots of people about my book, and I’m taking the necessary steps for that to happen. So, you see, introverts are resilient people always full of surprises—never to be underestimated.
I’m a writer. As a general rule, I write in silence. I find it impossible to pour my thoughts out onto paper when I am surrounded by noise—not even soft music playing in the background. Life would certainly be easier if my pen and I could function harmoniously while the noise of the world carried on around me, but the reality is that noise distracts me, taking my mind off my work. I need quiet for my thoughts to flow and peace to write them down.
My son harbors the same need, but unlike me, he doesn’t have any control over his working environment. He sits in a classroom with nearly 30 other children. He has to focus on his sums, read instructions, and complete tasks while all around him his classmates chatter with or whisper to each other, shuffle around, drop things, consult with the teacher, or demonstratively vie for his attention.
My son is distracted by this classroom noise, and he loses his train of thought; his concentration ebbs. His frustration builds because he’s a conscientious student who cannot meet his own high expectations. The level of the work is within his reach; the quiet he needs to concentrate is not. He falls behind on his tasks. He shuts down. And he says nothing to his teacher. He feels helpless. He feels inadequate. He feels like a failure. His self-esteem is quashed. But he stays quiet.
Quiet doesn’t mean he’s okay.
Other children draw attention to themselves like magnets with their noise and disruptive behavior. Teachers have no choice but to react. Quiet children, like my son, fade away in classrooms all over the world. Children like my son feel lost in the learning spaces filled with chatter, fidgeting, and distractions—the very environments that are set up to nurture them and help them blossom. Their learning is impeded. Bright students doubt themselves. Enthusiastic pupils lose their hunger to learn.
There are no tell-tale signs on my child’s face that he is struggling. His head is down, and from the outside, he seems focused as if he is working devotedly on his schoolwork. It’s a brilliant façade that hides his racing mind, which is frantically trying to process the overload of sensory input that engulfs him.
His introverted nature means he won’t purposefully draw attention to himself—he won’t scream for help even when he needs it most.
Instead, he’ll muddle on as best he can, bottling up his emotions, frustrations, and struggles until he gets home. As he crosses that threshold of safety, comes in through the front door of our home, he releases what he has kept corked up during his school day: there’s an explosion of big emotions. It may take the form of fat uncontrollable tears, or anger, or aggression, or a wordless retreat to a safe haven to be alone.
I can take my son in my arms, hold him, and let him know I understand how he feels. I can let him know I have his back, that he’s in safe hands, and that he can let go of his emotions. And I can listen.
I can keep the dialogue open with those whose role it is to educate him. I can keep talking, but lessening the dim in the classroom seems an impossible ask. I don’t have the power to conjure up the quiet he needs in the place he needs it most..
So, you’re in a room full of people at a party. Someone approaches you (or you approach someone for some reason). You don’t feel anxiety, and you don’t feel shy. You can normally talk to that other person as if you’ve known them for years. That’s the extroverted part of you. After a couple of minutes of nice chit-chat, that person goes away. Minutes pass, you’re standing/sitting alone. You have no urge to communicate with others. You take a sip of what you’re drinking, watch the crowd, listen to the music, and eat food. No one approaches you, and you’re glad. You kind of wish you’ve stayed home and watched movies. That’s the introverted part. The moment someone does approach you, your little extrovert wakes up. Again, you communicate with no boundaries whatsoever.
It sounds great to be an extroverted introvert, doesn’t it?
Nope. Not always.
First of all, people don’t understand. You go out to parties, and you sing and dance and mingle with people, and all of a sudden, in everybody’s eyes, you’re an extrovert. The moment you decline a couple of invitations to some concerts or parties, people start gossiping that you’re “getting weird.” They ask you if you’re feeling fine. They judge you for not going out when they thought you would. That’s the worst part. I mean, sometimes you enjoy reading (a bad) book more than going to (a bad) concert, and that’s fine. And sometimes, they will understand. But mostly, they won’t.
How extroverts see you is really funny. Friday and Saturday nights are just not your thing sometimes. You try your best not to set off negative vibes in those days, but it often seems as if you fail at it. For you, it’s just too crowded and too noisy. You pray to God some of your friends will get bored soon. But they don’t. And you can’t leave them all of a sudden. It’s hard to explain to the extroverts that you, who likes concerts and being with a lot of friends, are feeling anxious.
How introverts see you is even funnier. You’re something like their PR manager. You completely understand their anxieties and how frightened they are when they need to communicate with the world. We all feel it sometimes. So, from time to time, you take it as your duty to communicate with the outer world when they don’t feel like it. Honestly, it’s really nice to have someone with whom you can grab a cup of coffee on Friday or Saturday afternoon, knowing it doesn’t have to end up as a late-night circus in town.
All in all, I’m just another brick in a wall. (Just kidding). Now, I hope I made it a little bit more clear how extroverted introverts (at least my type) function. And please, never judge a person if they don’t feel like going out, don’t try to persuade them that it’s going to be fun, never say that they seem depressed (saying that won’t solve anything), and always respect their decision whether they’re introverts, extroverts, or anything in-between.
I promised myself I wouldn’t look back. I did. I really did. It wasn’t in my nature to go back. I believed it was better to look forward and to begin a new chapter than to continue on with the cliff hanger. And to tell you the truth—I feel like I’m about to give you my biggest secret in the world—I was a hypocrite.
Why did I stop and look back on my past? Why did I pause to add my two cents to every memory? And why did I reflect on these events when I got older? It was like, or—rather—I was like a fine cheese that got better as it aged.
It was rather painful to admit that I paused and reflected back at the beginning. It felt wrong. It wasn’t my place to fill in the holes that were in me. I was the girl who enjoyed reflecting through other ways without the mechanism of talking. Through art and through writing I found my tools.
Yet, I was ostracized, accosted for my quiet presence and the bland aloof demeanor I presented. I couldn’t tell them I couldn’t speak my own language. I didn’t flow with others. I didn’t raise my voice. I listened. I didn’t give my opinions. I analyzed. I didn’t present. I gave research. I didn’t talk. I chose my words.
It was quantity vs. quality. My fourth-grade teacher said it was harder to dig your way out of a hole than to climb your way out of one, but it was I who dug deeper. I fumbled. I cracked. I cried. I bled. I broke. I strived to be louder. I tried, but it was hard. The voices got louder. A physical assault on my senses. There was no out. I was a cornered king. Outmatched and outgunned by my opponents. I licked my wounds and drove back into the recesses of my mind. I was the obscurity, an oddity no one tried to befriend. Rather, I was befriended out of pity.
And inside my mind, I watched. I struggled. I failed. And I grew. I silenced my heart while it screamed at me that I wasn’t shy. I was reserved. I wasn’t weak. I was strong. My mind was quiet. It was loud.
I was Atlas. I was given the world on my shoulders. I was Prometheus. I was chained to the rock to face my punishment. I was Pandora that opened the box. I was Orion. I was Achilles. I was Hamlet.
Yet, there were a few who found me, accepting me for who I am. They were extroverted in their ways, but they were my outlet. They gave me strength and encouraged me to find my own self. To define my weaknesses that I saw as my strength. And to see my weaknesses as my foundation to improve.
I didn’t realize until I learned to open my eyes and reflected back that it was all right to be quiet. That it was the quietest voice that was always the loudest.
My introversion was not a disadvantage—it was a tool. My cliffhangers weren’t an ending—they were the beginning. I wasn’t the cheese that was left to rot and to be eaten by worms. No, I was savored and enriched by the years gone by.
I rushed out of my Introductory Geology class session on metamorphic rocks a bit early that day, brushing off student questions at the end of class with hurried apologies, and walked to my car at the fastest clip I could manage. My destination was a restaurant: the Margarita at Pine Creek, where I was giving a lunch talk for the Pikes Peak Environmental Forum. I agreed to this plan because I had no lab that afternoon with my students, but this talk was still crunched between class and afternoon meetings.
I had decided to talk about the crossover between earthquake science and climate science. Newly-discovered links between the atmosphere and earth have been shaking up my scientific community in recent years, creating collaboration between scientists in disparate realms through new technologies and the discovery of new phenomena.
The sun blazing, my car was sweltering hot as I drove up to the restaurant, and by the time I entered the restaurant, I was more in the mind of summer than fall. As I walked inside the restaurant, the calm atmosphere was striking, with the mixed sunlight and shadows from the trees entering through the windows to give a feeling of the outside being brought inside.
I was the first to arrive, as I prefer, so I had ample time to take in my surroundings. I then quickly turned my thoughts inward to run through the talk in my head. The topic was new to me, and I did quite a bit of research to put it together—a bit more than I’d usually do for a public talk—but I had been interested in using this material for a class I was teaching in the spring anyway. However, even after 9 years of teaching college classes, I still had butterflies in my stomach.
The host arrived along with the earlier guests, and I ate lunch while making small talk with several of them. I was lucky: we found some good things to talk about, and the time for chitchat was thankfully short, owing to the fact that I was giving a talk for most of lunch.
The talk went well. The audience asked lots of questions, and I received a warm reception with many thanks from them after the talk. However, my brain was already rushing back to the myriad tasks and meetings I still had to do that afternoon at school, and I struggled to stay present in my post-talk conversations with the guests.
After many of the guests had funneled out of the restaurant, a woman approached me. She was upper middle-age with short, cropped white hair and a simple, comfortable dress. Her calm expression was striking and inviting in a way that made me feel immediately at ease. She thanked me for the talk and expressed how much more connected she felt to the earth after hearing me speak. “I’m just going to go home and lie on the ground in my backyard,” she said, “and feel the earth for a while.”
Immediately, my subconscious brought up a visual of her house: small and cute with lots of wind chimes. It had a kitchen filled with herbs and crystals hanging in all the windows. I assumed she was one of those persons whose comments often leave me lost for words: someone who values the hidden and unexplainable energies of the world more than scientific explanations. Yet, her statement pulled a tiny bit at my soul. What she described doing with her afternoon sounded much better to me than what I was doing with mine. She went on: “I really like going to these talks. I like to get out and meet new people and learn new things. Then I need to go home and just be alone with my thoughts for a while because I’m an introvert.”
I thought that sounded wonderful. I wanted to have that life and to be like her when I’m 55. Then, a new thought hit me like a firecracker in my brain. She’s an introvert, and she’s okay with that! Moreover, she talks about it with other people and has constructed her life to be in tune with her introverted temperament. At the time, I felt—more than understood—that this was very different from the norms of society and certainly different from the norms of my profession and workplace.
I’m 40, so 55 is not that far away. How could I become like her when I felt my life was set up to move in such a different direction: to a place full of busyness and constant interaction with people all day?
What I have learned since that day at the Margarita is that I had constructed my career as a geology professor to be in line with my core values: promoting education, mentoring young people to find their paths and gifts, helping young people also work on their shortcomings, and studying the earth.
My daily activities, however, were starkly out of line with my introverted nature: being the center of attention for hours each day, attending back-to-back meetings, having student appointments for entire afternoons, making daily small talk with students and faculty, and—in the rare moments I had time at my desk—being interrupted regularly. I was pretending to be an extrovert because I thought being an introvert was socially unacceptable, and that led me into a job that clashed with my personality.
Though the full weight of that lesson at the Margarita needed many months (plus some therapy) to settle on my brain before I could fully describe and understand it, without the 30-second influence of this woman’s conversation, I’d be far behind where I am today in accepting who I am, making positive changes to move my career in a direction more in line with my temperament, and speaking openly to friends and family about my introverted nature.
As much as my talk moved her, I wish I could thank her and let her know how much her comment moved my life.
Just like a typical introvert, I walk around within my own personal bubble. When people get too close for comfort, I have to resist the urge to push them out. Once in a blue moon, though, someone—a stranger—would come along and burst through the bubble… And to my utter horror, I would actually enjoy it.
One sunny Sunday, after two consecutive weekends of staying in, I decided to take myself on a day out. As usual, I had my sunglasses and headphones on as if I was creating a physical barrier between the surroundings and myself. While I was waiting for the train, my eyes caught sight of an acquaintance. I immediately hoped he would not see me or approach me. It had nothing to do with him, he is a nice guy—but at that moment, all I really wanted was to enjoy my music during the one-and-a-half-hour train ride instead of talking to someone, to anyone. So I did my best to hide among the people between us, and I succeeded. When the train came, I made sure he got on the train first before I got onto a different carriage.
I got a seat by the window on a two-person seat, with the seats opposite me empty.
I am in New South Wales, Australia, where the trains have seats that you could ‘flip’ to change the direction the seats are facing, whether it’s forward or backward. It also means that if you do not want to sit facing another stranger, you could flip the seat and end up having the row to yourself.
At the next stop, a cute blonde girl boarded the train. She paused by my seat, quickly scanned the rest of the train, then smiled at me and sat right opposite of me, taking me by a huge surprise. Most people would have flipped the seat to sit with their backs toward a stranger instead of having to face the stranger. But not this girl. Not only that, she also could have sat by the aisle, but again, she amazed me by scooting towards the window seat. Now, we were directly opposite each other. Our legs bumped, and we had to cross our legs strategically to make space for one another.
In most instances, I would have been outraged by the proximity, especially when there were other empty seats. Not today though. Not her. There was something about this girl that made her presence non-intrusive. It did not feel like my space was being invaded at all. It felt nice. It felt comfortable.
My self-deprecating mind then wondered why she had chosen to sit with me. I wondered if she would regret her decision and move to another seat the next chance she got. But no, she only made herself more comfortable, resting her jacket on her lap. Next, she took out a textbook from her bag and began reading and highlighting it.
At one point during the ride, I removed my sunglasses. Somehow, I did not want to hide behind them anymore. Even though at times the sun’s glare bothered me, I kept my sunglasses off. So there I was, sitting on a train, listening to my favorite playlist with the girl opposite me, who was listening to her own music through her earphones while reading and highlighting her textbook.
It was as if we were both in our own worlds, yet the borders of our worlds intertwined a little. It was beautiful. We sat like that throughout my whole ride, our legs touching comfortably. When the train reached my stop, I looked at her, feeling dread. We both nodded—me signaling her that I was leaving, and her moving her legs to make space for me to walk out.
That is my story about a girl on a train who crashed into my bubble and somehow magically made it more graceful with her presence. How could a stranger have such a profound effect on an introvert without saying a single word?
I work in advertising—a highly creative, collaborative, and extroverted environment that puts my introversion center stage every single day.
I get invited to creative brainstorming sessions all the time with many strong and loud personalities. Once, I was in such a session with 15 other people, who pitched awesome ideas with such confidence and ease that I couldn’t keep up. My energy started to drop, and I couldn’t focus on my own thoughts. As an introvert, I don’t shine in these situations, nor do I say things for the sake of saying things. I like to participate with purpose.
Too overwhelmed and self-conscious to say anything, I sat there and took notes while listening to everyone else. On my way out of that meeting, my lack of participation was made painfully obvious when someone turned around and said to me, “Oh, hey Sandra! You were in that meeting? I didn’t see you; I didn’t even notice you were there.”
That comment stuck with me, and I replayed it over and over again in my head. It made me question my place in a creative industry. Was this the wrong career choice for my personality type? Do I belong here? Am I even creative enough to work here?
When the going gets tough, the introvert gets thoughtful. I interviewed industry leaders, creative writers, and designers in the very place I work—and they also happen to be introverts. These are the introverts I like to call A Perfectly Calculated Creative Force.
I learned a lot and gained valuable feedback from them, which has helped me throughout my career. I’ve turned that feedback and insight into nine tools to help other introverts bring their own perfectly calculated creative force to the mix. My hope is that if you’re in a similar situation, you’ll find some of these tools helpful as well.
1. Express your work style. Share what you need, what happens behind the scenes, and the value of working autonomously. If big group meetings or brainstorms freak you out, offer to moderate or structure the meeting so you can be actively engaged in the process.
2. Ask open-ended questions. In a brainstorm, you don’t always have to speak up with an original idea, but you can start asking open-ended questions that generate discussion and guide the conversation.
3. Follow up. Take time to process and send a follow up. If big meetings are overwhelming and you need time to process, take that time. Just make sure you follow up with an email or one-on-one meeting to share your valuable thoughts.
4. Allow yourself to pause. Take a minute (or two) when someone puts you on the spot. Pausing before you speak allows you to collect your thoughts and provide an informed answer. This will also help you separate emotion and impulse and present a voice of reason.
5. Actively listen. Show you’re actively engaged and listening with non-verbal signals such as eye contact, posture, nodding, and mirroring others. Since you’re always thinking, you need to show people you’re listening and engaged.
6. Connect the dots. Take the pressure off yourself and summarize what others are saying in a different way. Focus on the commonalities between two opposing camps rather than the differences. Be intentional when focusing on others’ ideas, and be a connector of ideas.
7. Prepare and research. Information will help with confidence, so be proactive with meeting invites. Ask why you’re invited or ask for objectives. Don’t aim to be right, but, rather, aim to provide your unique point of view.
8. Build a trust circle. Find an extrovert you can connect with and make him/her your ally. Form a strategic alliance so you can help each other be successful. Create stronger relationships by setting up one-on-one conversations and follow-up meetings.
9. Be yourself, and own it. Learn more about yourself as an introvert, your inclinations, and your preferences at work. Don’t apologize for being an introvert, but seek a mutual understanding of your ways of working with others.
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