I have some dear friends with whom I often go out for a girls’ night. Even though I want to spend time with these smart, warm, generous ladies, more often than not, I’m feeling drowned out and stifled when they get into lively conversations with each other. I wind up eating in silence while they chatter around me. I come away from these girls’ nights feeling guilty for being such a failure at conversation and unsatisfied with my own lack of participation.

For me, conversations are like a group of musicians performing together. In European classical music, allegro is a joyful lively tempo, and adagio is an easy-going slower tempo. Think of the difference between a piece of music where all the violins are scratching away at a high speed and one where flutes exhale a leisurely melody. Both are valid. Both are beautiful. Yet, it’s nearly impossible to play a piece of music in both tempos at the same time without it sounding like chaos.

Extroverts tend to speak in a rapid allegro, expecting a particular style of feedback, debate, and commentary as well as invigorating follow-up questions. They feel appreciated and loved when there is an equal level of engagement and exchange. I understand that. I would like to accommodate my extrovert friends’ needs and express how important they are to me. But as an introvert, I find it very difficult to simultaneously absorb what a person is saying, consider my own responses, and verbalize those responses. I listen for rest beats as signals that the speaker is giving me an opening to respond. Often, I misread the cues, so I am unsure of when or how to speak up.

Feeling pressured to increase my level of engagement, I make clumsy efforts to jump in. My adagio timing is off. I don’t purposely withhold my engagement with the intent of causing the speaker’s enthusiasm to wither, to make their narrative die in its tracks, so I can seize the opportunity to rise up and dominate the conversation. I don’t feel victory when all eyes turn to me. I am uncomfortable in the spotlight; the last thing I want is to hog all the attention. But there are occasions when I’d simply like to be heard—a moment for the adagio to unfold at its own pace.

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  • Will Richardson

    Another analogy that may be worth a think look is dancing and choreography. It’s important to be aware of one’s fellow players and tune or adjust to eachother…a many way process that involves and enriches more of us.

  • Liberty

    I am in love with this analogy. Thank you for sharing.

  • Karen

    Beautiful analogy, Denise. I also participate in a group like the one you describe. I took the plunge and explained to all the extroverts in the group (one by one!) my difficulties with the extroverted conversational style. It was very helpful. They were universally surprised; none of them had any clue that there are people who can’t listen, think and talk all at the same time! But they were also all very grateful to gain insight into the introverted style, and one of them even told me it helped him understand his introverted partner.

    Next time I have to explain, I’ll use your musical analogy!

  • Karin Wentworth Ping

    I get you. I do this conversational “shall I push in now?” routine usually when i’m with people I don’t know very well. It feels very clumsy and unnatural and I’m usually being much louder than I would normally. Exhausting!

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  • EasyReader

    As a lifelong introvert, I can relate to all those feelings. I’m better at the one-on-one exchanges rather than a group conversation. Social chaos wears me out, and the non-introverts (aka “normal” people – ha ha) think there is something wrong with me. Keep writing about the quiet people. Thank you.

  • Thank you, Denise! Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I tend to wait for the rest signals, too, to wait the respectable beat before starting a new topic, so anyone who still has something to say on the old topic can do that first, and so it doesn’t seem like I’m bored or not interested in the previous topic and over-eager to change it. That strategy works with my close friends who are also introverts, but in meetings or at parties with acquaintances and friends’ friends, I notice that other people have a different timing for their pauses. Slightly shorter. So I wind up hardly contributing, because almost everytime I want to say something, in the split second before I open my mouth, someone else speaks up. Ah, socialising.

  • David Pool

    Thanks Denise, now I get allegro and adagio. Sometimes I notice a similar dynamic with people who free associate wildly, moving from topic to topic rapidly. I just want to slow down and focus. By the time I’ve figured out what I want to say, the conversation has moved on to three more topics 😉