« Okay if we do it, awful if they do it | Main | Some nifty photos »

Invisible to (some) extroverts

| 38 Comments

There's a certain category of people I sometimes meet as friends-of-friends. They're smart, funny, enthusiastic, attractive extroverts who lead interesting lives and tell great stories.

And I really enjoy hanging out with them. I ask them questions, and they say smart and funny and interesting things. And sometimes I even get crushes on them.

And then I go home, and I wonder if it's occurred to them that after spending an entire evening with me, they don't know anything more about me than they did at the start.

(I feel obliged to mention at this point that I don't think anyone reading this is in the category I'm talking about. I mean, of course all of my friends are smart, funny, and attractive, and tell great stories—that goes without saying. And many of y'all are extroverts. And of course I have huge crushes on y'all. But I'm talking in most of this entry about a particular category of people who I don't know very well and who really pretty much never express the slightest interest in me at all.)

They usually like me; after all, I'm a pretty good audience. I'm appreciative, and I laugh at their jokes, and I ask questions that give them opportunities to tell great stories.

And I'm not even really complaining; I do enjoy spending time with such people.

But I'd enjoy it a little bit more if they would occasionally ask me a question, or otherwise express any interest at all in me.

I have several possible theories to explain their behavior:

  • They notice that I'm a little reserved, so they assume that I don't want to have to be the focus of attention, so they're being nice by not asking me anything.
  • They think I'm boring. (Or to put it more charitably: They notice that I'm a little reserved, so they assume I must not have anything interesting to say.)
  • They're in entertaining-an-audience mode; in other contexts, they might be more interested in having a more interactive conversation.
  • They don't really notice that there's another person (me) in the conversation at all; they see me as an audience rather than as a person.
  • They assume that if I have anything to say, I'll jump on in and say it. (This is the part that's arguably my fault—there's nothing preventing me from jumping in and offering my own unprompted stories instead of asking more questions. But I think some part of me feels that that would be a little rude; and in the contexts I'm talking about, it's harder for me to do that than in more friendly/interactive contexts.)
  • They read my journal regularly and thus assume they know everything that's going on in my life. (There's a lot that I don't write about publicly, but that fact may not be obvious to people who don't know me well.)
  • No one's ever taught them that asking questions is a useful conversational approach, nor taught them what kinds of questions to ask. (The interviewing workshop I took at SGI lo these many years ago continues to be one of the most valuable classes I ever took.)
  • They aren't really much interested in other people—they're so focused on their own lives that they don't really care much about other people's lives.

I'm sure there are plenty of other possibilities. And I don't mean to be as harsh as some of those probably sound. And I'm sure that in many cases what's really going on is a mix of various things.

But over time, I've been starting to think more and more that that last point may be the biggest factor.

It's easy to get so caught up in our own lives that we aren't paying much attention to others' lives. But in my experience, almost everyone has interesting things to say. Sometimes it takes a little patience and/or a little prompting and/or the right context to find out what those interesting things are, but they're almost always there.

Anyway, I don't mean this entry as chiding or as asking people to ask me more questions; like I said above, I don't think any of y'all reading this are in the category I'm talking about. Really just musing.

(Wrote almost all of this entry in early November 2007, but never posted it. Came across it today while looking for something else, decided to finally post it. Haven't actually encountered people like this in quite a while; my posting this now shouldn't be taken as commentary on anyone I've seen lately.)

38 Comments

i know some people like that. they're a lot of fun for a while, and then after that, really, i could be staying home and doing laundry or something productive.


Interesting post.

I am (or like to think I am) a little bit the opposite: I conscsiously try to ask people about themselves -- but does that come across as too self-conscious or contrived? I hope not, but who knows. I *am* genuinely interested in answers to the questions I ask.

I once was in a small-group situation with an actor, and asked him what he liked to do when he wasn't working. (I was with my husband, so I don't think this could have been construed as a come-on.) I asked it because I sincerely thought he might get tired of being grilled about work all the time. I just thought he might have some interesting hobby he'd enjoy talking about for a change.

He told me that my asking that was kind of creepy. Sigh....


When this happens to me, I'm quick to leap to hypothesis 2 (they think I'm boring) and/or 8 (not interested in others). How I resent such people! In reality, I suspect that 3 (conversation as entertainment)and 5 (they assume you'd jump in if you wanted) play a fairly large role.

More possibilities:

• They think you're having a great conversation. What a lovely coincidence that the thing they most want to talk about (since almost everyone likes to talk about herself) is the thing you also want to talk about (since you keep asking questions)!

• Later they, too, will add up the score of the conversation and realize with chagrin that they never got around to talking about you.

• Although they appear extroverted in this context, in reality they are shy persons who are for some reason having an on night, and are relishing their turn in the spotlight. (I propose this rather implausible-sounding theory because I think I occasionally fall into this pattern; although I'm quite shy and usually try to keep my conversations reciprocal, I can be as much of an attention hog as anyone when the opportunity presents itself.)


Well, with me, with specific reference to you, it's number one. I think I one sat at the same table as you and IIRC we didn't exchange a word. I knew who you were and I thought you were a very interesting person, but I got the message loud and clear that you were either very shy or very reserved, and that if you wanted to come out your shell you'd do it at your own pace.

In my experience, shy people really don't appreciate being dragged out in the light. I tried and made a couple of enemies for life. Granted, one of them was the fiancee of a long-time friend, so it wasn't set up for a win anyway.

More generally, I am in full extrovert mode when I am very nervous. I talk and gesture and do clownish things because it's my way to cope with the stress of being with strangers and/or a lot of people. So extroversion works a bit like barrage balloons. Often I then go home/to my room and have horrible moments of "Oh my God, I did it AGAIN, I swamped everybody and came across as an annoying arrogant twit."


Also: just because I don't ask questions, don't assume I am not picking up a lot of things about people.


Of course, it also depends on how much other people in the room/conversation know or don't know. Sometimes it feels a little odd to ask questions if you suspect that you are the odd person out and everyone else knows everything already. But you appear to be describing a one-on-one situation more that a group thing, so maybe that is irrelevant here.


I am like that. I get to know what shy people are like by finding out the things they laugh about. This might sound easy but really takes hours of painstaking research on and off-stage, a thorough interrogation of said shy person's friends and careful observation.

It's exhausting, but some people are worth the effort.


Hmmm...I guess I wonder, reading this post, why you think it's a (necessary?) virtue for people to be interested in you (in particular), or quiet people (in general). The entire post comes off to me as somewhat judgemental in that regard.

Why *should* they be interested in you, just because you happen to be in the room?

Do you think it's important to be interested in everyone you run across in a social situation? And if so, why?


Betsy: Yeah—I think for me they continue to be fun to be around, but over time that fun starts to be mixed with a certain amount of resentment.

Amy: In my experience, asking people about themselves has rarely caused any problems. Sometimes people would rather not talk about themselves, but in those cases I usually see them give very brief or noncommittal answers, and it's easy enough to redirect the conversation.

I'm surprised to hear the actor found your question creepy; it seems like a good question to me. The wife of one of my then-coworkers once asked each of us at our table (at a company party) what we would do if we couldn't do computer stuff, and the answers were interesting and enlightening; she said she usually asked tech people that question as a sort of icebreaker, and I thought it worked well. But maybe actors are more likely to feel that acting is the core of their life or something? Dunno.

Kendra: Good alternative hypotheses. And yeah, in some contexts when I get going on some topic or other, it takes me a while to remember to not make the conversation entirely focused on me.

I think the contexts you're thinking of may be a little more general than the ones I was thinking of in this entry, though—in particular, in the specific contexts I was thinking of, I'd be very surprised if the people in question realized later that they hadn't asked me anything. In those particular contexts, I had the strong impression that I just wasn't on their radar as someone who might have a life of my own.

But, sure, in the general case of one person monopolizing the conversation, I imagine they do often later get chagrined over having done so.


Anna: Fwiw, you weren't one of the people I was talking about. I'm really pretty certain that none of the people I was talking about read my blog.

I do think there's an important middle ground between dragging shy people into the spotlight (which I agree isn't a good idea) and acting as though they exist only to be an audience. If you find yourself in such a situation again, and you're willing to try reaching out, I think most of the time it works well to send up a test balloon. Ask a not-too-probing lightweight question, and see how they react. If at that point they don't appear to be interested in talking, then back off. Often a question like "Where do you work?" or "Where do you live?" can lead into more conversation, whereas diving immediately into "Tell us your most embarrassing moment" or "What are your three deepest secrets?" is more likely to make shy people uncomfortable.

True that asking questions isn't the only way to find out about people. But the kinds of people I was talking about in this entry aren't closely observing others in order to learn about them; their focus is entirely on telling their stories about themselves.

Good point about nervousness.

Allogenes: Fair enough. Though I think that it's also possible to ease into that kind of situation by explicit disclaimers; for example, "I'm guessing everyone else already knows this, so we don't have to talk about it, but where did you go to school?" And sometimes a group of people who already know each other will jump at the chance to collectively tell a story to an interested outsider.

Sara: :) That does sound like a lot of work. I'm glad it works, though!


I am indubitably an introvert, but I know I fall into this pattern occasionally because someone happens to ask about one of my favorite topics and ends up getting an earful as I rattle happily on and I'm not very good at reciprocating with openings for them to do the same. I do know that asking questions is a useful approach - I learned that from Dale Carnegie - but I've never been comfortable with figuring out what questions to ask. What kinds of questions were you taught to ask in your interviewing class?


This happens to extroverts, too, at least extroverts like me. I can be entertaining, I can tell funny stories, but my general style of extroversion (insert book-length rant about how oversimplified these categories are, no really. It' a book I want to write) is to draw people out. And I often come home thinking, "Could that person have asked me one question?"


Mary Anne: I have various thoughts about this.

The main part of my response is that I find the people I'm talking about attractive/appealing in various ways, and I therefore want them to find me appealing as well. This part isn't so much a "they should be interested in me"; just that I want them to be interested in me.

Another piece: If this were an actual performance (like on a stage, for example), then I wouldn't expect the performer to be interested in me; I'd be there as an audience member. But when I'm in a small social group (say 4-6 people), I do generally prefer conversation among everyone who wants to converse, rather than a performance by one person. One person telling one great story as part of the evening is great; one person telling a long string of stories that takes up the entire evening, while still fun and entertaining, tends to be less enjoyable to me than if more people get to participate.

I suppose I have some power over this; I could stop asking the performer questions and start asking the other people questions, for example.

Another piece: I do think that it's a virtue to be interested in other people in general. I'm not sure what you mean by "necessary"; certainly plenty of people get by without it. But sure, I think it's generally a good thing for people to be interested in other people. There are lots of things that I think are virtues but that not everyone does.

Another piece: I think that if a person is having dinner with, or hanging out at a cafe with, a group of three to five other people, then it's polite to acknowledge the other people there as people, even if they're not jumping in and talking about themselves.

And the level of interest I'm talking about isn't all that high. I'm not saying they should want to know my life story or anything.

Also note that this isn't a situation where I'm sitting quietly in a corner being as inconspicuous and silent as possible; it's a situation where I'm asking them questions, leaning forward, expressing interest, and laughing at their jokes. And they're responding to me. It's usually clear that they like me to the extent that they're aware of me, so I don't think it's (for example) that they have a negative opinion of me and are intentionally avoiding asking me anything.

It sounds to me like you were upset by this entry. If so, I'm sorry to have upset you. But I'm not quite clear on what about it upset you.

It sounds like some people may have interpreted this as my saying "extroverts are bad because they ignore me"; if that's how it came across, then I apologize, 'cause that's not what I meant.

So, to attempt to clarify: I'm talking about a particular kind of situation that I've been in a few times, with people who behaved a particular way; I found those people really appealing, and I wanted them to see me as more than an appreciative audience, but I don't think that they did, and I found that disappointing. I would have liked them even more if they'd been more curious about others, and especially about me.

Does that make more sense?


Laura: The interviewing class mostly provided the general framework of starting with what you're given (like a resume) and coming up with followup questions. The teacher also recommended taking notes during the interviewee's answers, in case anything sparked followup questions.

Generalizing that to conversation instead of interviewing, I've found that often, an answer to a basic question can spark other questions, and the answers to those can spark further followup questions. Sometimes this doesn't work, especially if the answerer isn't very forthcoming. If I say "What's your line of work?" and they say "Accounting. It's really boring," then I may be at a loss for immediate followup.

But if I ask them (for example) where they live, it may turn out that I've been there, or that I know someone who lives there. It may turn out that I've heard rumors about that place; then I can ask "I've heard that wild panthers stalk the streets at night—is that really true?"

Of course, another tip from the interviewing class is to ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions. If you forget this and ask a yes/no question (as I often do), then it's sometimes possible to follow up with "Tell me more" or "What's that like?" or "How do you like it?" or "How do you deal with that?" or "What do you [or don't you] like about X?" or "I've heard good things about X; what do you think of it?"

Another piece of this is that dropping conversational hooks into one's comments and/or answers can be useful. If someone asks me where I went to college, I could say "Oh, a little liberal arts school you've probably never heard of," and that probably shuts down conversation. But if I say "a little liberal arts school called Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia," that gives them more possible hooks. They might know something about Philadelphia, for example, even if they've never heard of Swat.

If possible, I think it's a good idea to ask questions about things that the other person is excited about. The abovementioned "what would you do if you couldn't do [your day job]" seems to me to be, in general, a good way of heading towards things the other person is really interested in (though based on Amy's experience, sounds like it can backfire).

Another general technique (I forget whether this was explicitly mentioned in the interview class, but I think it was at least inspired by something from that class) is to not assume you know the answer to a question. I'm not saying to ask really obvious questions; I'm just saying that often, when I ask a question I think I know the answer to, it turns out the real answer is much more interesting than I'd expected. In particular, don't assume that you know what the other person's emotional reaction is to a situation they've mentioned; asking questions like "how did you feel about that?" can sometimes elicit interesting answers. If you think the answer is probably obvious and you want to hedge your bets, you can say things like "That sounds awful—was it as bad as it sounds?" (That's another y/n question, but you see what I mean.)

Of course, there are all sorts of ways all of these approaches I'm suggesting can go wrong. But they can also lead to some fascinating discussions.

One more very general thing they said in the interviewing class: they said part of the interviewer's job is to go from what the person did and when to why and how they did it. I think that's a useful general idea in many circumstances.


Side note: I feel like I should mention that I was in a situation a couple months ago in which someone who'd been asking me a lot of questions got upset that nobody was asking him questions. I feel that that was different in a variety of ways (for example, I had asked him a couple of questions, and I had been doing what I could to try to include everyone else in the conversation as well), but he might well have said that I was doing exactly what I'm talking about in this entry. So a lot may be in the eye of the beholder.


I just remembered that my blog comments now have a "reply to comment" feature; sorry I neglected to use that in my earlier responses here.

Debbie: Interesting; thanks for the comment.

What kinds of questions do you use to draw people out? In particular, do you have any further tips for Laura? (And for me; I'm always interested in getting better at this kind of thing.)

And remind me to ask you when I see you about the introvert/extrovert oversimplification; I have some thoughts on what kinds of things you might be referring to, but would love to hear more.


Well I have to admit my first thought was "guilty as charged" so I'm glad to know you didn't write this with any particular reader in mind. :)

But before you assume that all blabbermouths are self-centered and unobservant (or at least before you condemn us for it), remember some of us are just freakin' nervous and socially awkward, and this is the only way we've ever learned to come out of our shells.

I was thinking about this a lot yesterday, but the sum of my thoughts is that the difference between an introvert and an extravert in a social situation is that afterwards the introvert comes home and kicks themselves for what they *didn't* say and the chances they didn't take, while the extravert kicks themselves for what they *did* say--the jokes that didn't land, the unintended insults that did, the talking too much, misjudging your audience, boring people, and coming off like an idiot. I'm not sure either position is to be envied!!


Mary Anne, I don't think it would have ever occurred to me (I'm of course not speaking for Jed) that being interested in everyone you meet might not be a virtue.

I can give several reasons why I've always felt it was one, but the fact that you're raising the question in the first place makes me suspect they're not as universally valid as I would have thought -- and also goes a long way toward making me better get what makes extroverts tick.

Nonetheless, in the interest (possibly merely quirky and personal and symptomatic of my neuroatypicality) of furthering understanding between the ends of the spectrum, some reasons:

  • There is something interesting about most people, even if for some people it's only the question of what makes them so uninteresting. Taking an interest in everyone furthers one's understanding of people in general, something useful in daily life but particularly useful for writers.
  • People are often made unhappy when other people fail to take an interest in them. When this lack of interest is sufficiently ostentatious, it can be interpreted as rudeness, and form a lasting impression of the disinterested person as someone with poor manners and/or taste.
  • Conversely, people often are made happy when other people take an interest in them. It makes them more well-inclined toward the person taking the interest and also makes them feel better about themselves.
  • Failure to take an interest risks missing out on the really interesting people.
But, again, maybe that's just the introversion talking.



"It sounds to me like you were upset by this entry." Well, more annoyed than upset, I think. Which I would've just addresssed in e-mail or on the phone, but given all the public responses, it seemed worth responding publicly too.

Let me try to unpack what irritated me:

The base assumption that people *should* be interested in you. This is what I meant by 'necessary virtue'. I think people who are actually interested in most people, even people who on the surface seem boring and uninteresting, are in real life very rare. I'm impressed when I meet one of those people, but I'd say I've met less than a clear dozen of them in my entire life? And I always remember and notice that quality about them. Sincere interest in an apparently boring stranger is not something that can be well-faked, in my experience.

What's much more common are people who have been socially (or business-y) trained to *appear* actually interested in other people. They conscientiously attempt to 'draw out' the quiet people. I do this in the classroom, because it's part of my job to try to engage all of my students. I sometimes do it at parties, because it can be a way of making a small group situation more interesting for everyone involved. But it's hard work, and it's often both tedious and unproductive of interesting responses.

Far more often, I'm happy to let the raconteur tell their stories, because that makes for a more fun, entertaining evening for everyone, than stilted small talk with three reluctant shy people about 'so, what do *you* do?' I'm always so grateful when there's someone like that in the group, because it means that I don't have to take up the job/burden of being the entertainment, the social lubricant -- I can participate, or not, as much as I choose to.

So when you say, "I don't mean to be as harsh as some of those probably sound" and "I don't mean this entry as chiding" -- well, those disclaimers weren't convincing to me. Because the rest of the entry really did read as both chiding and harsh. Not to mention setting yourself up as already possessing this virtue that everybody else should have.

I suppose if you're really just willing to consider extra-valuable those people who make the social attempt to be interested, that's consistent, at least. But I don't agree that that's necessarily a virtue.

In many situations, I'd rather people didn't make that often awkward attempt, especially if they're not either a) sincere or b) very skilled at it. It can be torture for everyone involved. If you're bored by a conversation, consider just leaving the conversation. Go talk to someone else at the party that you already find interesting.

And yes, don't expect extroverts to do all the social work for you. We have our own set of challenges already.


David, sorry, I missed your comment while writing my own. Not sure whether to try to respond to yours -- I think I addressed this in my comment. But if there's something specific you want me to respond to, let me know.


Hm...just to clarify -- I really do think pretty much everyone is interesting. Surface sparkle is not required.

But there's a difference between believing that, and always being willing to do (or interested in doing) the hard work to draw the interesting elements out of strangers, especially in a group social situation, when I may well have a variety of other priorities: relaxing, having fun, being entertained, being entertaining, getting laid, learning something, etc.

The two-person dynamic is an entirely different thing, by the way, and I do think someone who never shows interest in their conversational partner during a two-person conversation is rude.

Also the person who actively dominates a small group discussion, making it actively difficult for others to participate -- that's rude. But I didn't think that was what Jed was talking about, given that it seemed to me that his main interaction with the dominant person was to *facilitate* their dominance.


Heh. I just figured out what all this reminds me of, and maybe explains why it's annoying me so much -- the complaint of the 'nice guy' that the pretty girl never notices that he's interested in her.

Umm...maybe it's 'cause you never made the effort to make that interest clear? Yet somehow, it becomes her responsibility for 'ignoring' him...


Mary Anne, your chiding of introverts who rely on extroverts to do all the social work for them is well taken. I'm guilty of this all the time.

I don't think that fits the specific case that Jed's talking about, though. In the situation he describes, he's not sitting back, waiting to be drawn out, but engaged in the conversation, leaning forward, asking questions, etc. You might still argue that it's unfair to expect the extrovert to flip a question back his way, but the unfairness is not a matter of asking the extrovert to do all the social work.


I agree that Jed was doing social work in his example. But I don't see what justifes his expectation that the extrovert (or the others in that group) should perform (or want the extrovert to perform) the same social work in response. It just comes across as an entitled assumption to me.

Maybe it's just that I so rarely come across a good storyteller. I'd hate them to cut themselves off out of some misplaced sense of social duty -- and I'd resent the people asking that of them.


Hm… I come across good storytellers very frequently. I wonder if my standard for storytelling is that much lower than Mary Anne's or if my acquaintance is skewed toward storytelling ability (in social gatherings, that is). The former, most likely.

I'll throw my own thoughtlessness out there, not altogether defensively but to add to the mix. I very frequently forget to ask questions about people, not only in the sort of mix you are talking about, but in one-on-one conversations with friends. And then later I think oh, damn, his mother had surgery last week and I wanted to know how it went or oh, damn, I wanted to know how her job hunt was going or such like. But during the conversation, I am very likely to forget to ask, because I have a hundred anecdotes and jokes I've been wanting to share, and then we get onto talking about politics or gardening or the design of carseats, and that's that.

And I'm like that with people that I really do like and am interested in—I am much, much more thoughtless with people I don't know well. Because I frequently do go home in such cases knowing nothing about them at all, and with at least a vague regret about that.

All of which is good to be reminded of, so thanks for the note, Jed!

Thanks,
-V.


Mary Anne, I think the disconnect is in putting all those other priorities ahead of keeping everyone else in the room happy -- a norm that I suppose probably comes down in some internalized, vaguely-specified way from 19th-century English bourgeois convention. I don't know if that difference is neurological or cultural -- (East Coast vs. West Coast, ruling caste vs. independent farmer?) or just personal. Probably all of the above.

(I am curious, though, where and how the dynamic changes from one-on-one to crowd. Once there are three people in the conversation, is it okay to ignore one of them? If it depends, then what on?)

The problem with the classical Nice Guy -- speaking as a former Nice Guy -- is twofold. One is his sense of entitlement and the inevitable resentment when he doesn't get what he thinks he's entitled to. (I didn't read that in Jed's post, but I can see how you could.) The other and I think the more important one is the line of bullshit he's feeding women and himself -- the pretense that he's interested in human beings when what he's actually interested in is sex. I think that might actually be a more fruitful analogy although I'm not sure exactly how it would line up. The introvert pretends he's interested in the kind of attention a performer gives an audience member, when actually he's only interested in a deep personal relationship? There might be something to that.


David, I understood that disconnect. And maybe I'm oversensitized to the imperative to 'keep everyone else in the room happy', since it's so often something that's expected to be women's first priority, overriding all other desires/needs. I mostly just didn't like seeing that assumption/imperative buried in Jed's original post. If that's your priority, fine, state it up front. But don't expect that everyone else is going to agree with you, and understand that you're making a judgement when you implicitly claim that they *should*. Standards of 'politeness' have too often been used as a means of social control, especially over women.

And yes, the overlap with the Nice Guy meme is precisely what you point out -- it seemed that specifically, Jed wasn't complaining that the extrovert wasn't allowing room for others to talk in the conversation (which I agree, would be rude, and *is* a common extrovert problem), but rather, that the extrovert wasn't performing one specific kind of social work that would let Jed in particular feel that the extrovert found him, personally, interesting/fascinating/entertaining, etc. That's very Nice Guy-ish to me, to expect that of people, and be hurt and resentful when they don't respond as desired.

(I suppose one geek element to it is that often the geek focuses on a specific kind of interaction they desire and fixate on, and completely miss other opportunities for interaction. I wonder how often in the situations Jed describes, the extrovert was a) deliberating pausing after a good anecdote, to let someone else take the stage, if only they would, b) making eye contact with someone to indicate that they should feel free to step up, c) attempting to shift the conversation from a personal anecdote to a more general discussion of a social or political topic, d) pausing to get a beverage or snack, etc. and so on.)

In the end, the post comes across as whining -- "I thought you were so cool -- why didn't you appreciate how cool I am too?" [shrug] Not everyone's going to think you're fabulous, and judging them as rude simply because they didn't make the social dance motions to let you pretend to yourself that they thought you were cool seems like a particularly neat and passive-aggressive form of social engineering.

Sometimes she's just not that into you.


So Mary Anne, what I hear you saying is: It's not that they're not interested in other people, they're just not interested in Jed. And that this is either Jed's fault or no one's, but in either case it's illegitimate for Jed to be bothered by it.

"Tag! You're the narcissist."

Nicely played. But do we have to divide into teams?

And in defense of Jed's original post, I should point out that I'm the one who brought rudeness into the discussion; also that the particular "sufficiently ostentatious" cases I had in mind were more extreme than the situation Jed described, and involved both extroverts and introverts. I didn't mean to say that failure to take an interest in someone -- or as you prefer to put it, failure to

perform one specific kind of social work that would let [you] in particular feel that the extrovert found [you], personally, interesting/fascinating/entertaining, etc. ... [failure to] make the social dance motions to let you pretend to yourself that they thought you were cool

-- necessarily justified "judging them as rude." My point was rather that fear of giving such a bad impression might be one reason to take an interest in a person.

I also think there's -- as so often -- a distinction between what somebody does on a particular occasion and who they are. Yes, I've seen people be sufficiently disdainful of others someone was trying to introduce to them that it's made me take a lasting dislike to them. I've also seen several people more or less fail to notice that they were being introduced to somebody, or to keep it in their head that there was somebody else in the conversation, on account of being too smart, having too short an attention span, and maybe being a little less sensitive than most people to social cues. In the latter case I still think the behavior is rude, but there's nothing to be done, you can work around it and it's mostly harmless and forgivable. I've met enough of the type that I can tell the difference between the backstabbing Iagoes and the lovable mad scientists who occasionally forget that you're not supposed to answer the front door wearing nothing but dirty undershorts.

That said, just because a norm's arbitrary and socially constructed and at some level fundamentally illegitimate, doesn't mean that the people who've internalized that norm know that, or that the fact that people have internalized the norm doesn't have consequences the potential for which it is sometimes worth taking into account.

Of course it was easier to do that a couple of centuries ago when any given class of any given society had only one set of norms, you pretty much knew what they were, and if you didn't follow them you got locked in the attic and/or stabbed. For all its confusion the present situation does have many advantages over that.


I think I'd better bow out of this discussion at this point -- it's all getting more personal that I intended it to be. :-(

For what it's worth, I don't think it's illegitimate to be bothered by someone not being interested in you, especially when you're interested in them. That's just human nature.

It just seems inappropriate to generalize from your personal upset to create an entire social rule about how other people *should* behave in that situation.

I didn't see the extrovert Jed described originally as being 'disdainful' or otherwise rude at all. All I saw was that he/she didn't ask Jed questions about himself. I can think of many, many situations where it would be perfectly appropriate for an entertaining extrovert not to ask someone questions. I don't think the extrovert should feel socially obliged to do so.


I find it very difficult to try to gather data on this topic from my own life and think about it analytically. A million social situations churn in my memory and I don't remember the input/output rhythms of multiperson conversations unless they're extreme, and possibly not even then. Turn-taking and balance and graciousness in conversations are such subjective things, from person to person and even to a particular person on different days or at different times of day or in even slightly different social contexts.

At a full-blown party, or company open house or tech meetup or something like that, I often act as ambassador to strangers who are standing by themselves. Maybe I spend 3 minutes with someone before moving on, maybe I spend an hour. And then sometimes I stop doing that work/play, because I run out of ambassadorial energy. Smaller gatherings, with people I know or with an evening to further an acquaintance, have way more variables and particulars. I look around and check: Does someone else look bored, or reserved? Is the topic one that I think we are all interested in? I usually ask questions to try to draw out people who (as I perceive it) haven't had a chance to talk, but I can't guarantee that I always do.

Mary Anne, Jed, and others have listed some possible ways to explicitly or implicitly ask "hey, do you want to take a conversational turn now?" or imply "I'm interested in you." I'm sure there are others. I'll try to remember and make use of them, for that moment when I realize I've been dominating the table.


I'm sorry I didn't get back to this yesterday. I was stressed by what felt to me like attacks from Mary Anne, and I had a bunch of other stuff I needed to do, so I went and focused on other stuff for a while. I'll talk with Mary Anne by phone about all this later.

But I wanted to post a short public response for now:

The gist of my response is that I think I must have phrased the entry badly. Because the kind of situation that I think Mary Anne and some of the rest of y'all read this as being about isn't at all the kind of situation I was referring to.

I love conversations with most charismatic extroverts. The best such conversations make me feel all tingly. Their attention is like a spotlight. They make me feel like I'm smart and funny and interesting even if I contribute very little to the conversation.

I love the social lubrication that a lot of extroverts do, and I appreciate and admire them for it. I'm a lot better than I used to be at keeping conversations going, but it's still often/generally a relief when there's an extrovert or two present so I don't have to do that work.

I love good stories told by good storytellers, whether introvert or extrovert, and I have a lot of friends who are good storytellers. I think of myself as being a pretty good storyteller, too, and I enjoy tossing anecdotes and jokes and illustrative parables into conversation. In fact, when I'm in a social context in which most of the people present are close friends of mine, I sometimes become a temporary extrovert myself.

I have no problem with people holding forth on topics of interest. Any of y'all who are worried that you do this and that I was complaining about you, please don't. I almost always enjoy listening to knowledgeable people talk about things they're interested in.

In short, I really like listening to other people talk, especially about their lives. One of the things I'm most interested in is understanding what makes people tick, both people in general and specific individuals.

And I have no desire to (a) force shy people to talk against their will, or (b) insist that people who most of the dinner participants are bored by be given a chance to blather as much as they want to.

So I didn't intend to complain about most of the things that several of y'all read this entry as being a complaint about. I am sorry that I didn't write this entry in a clearer or more convincing way, and I'm sorry that the resulting impression annoyed and/or worried and/or upset various of you.


Jed, I thought your original statement was clear. And, as an extrovert, I took no offense. It made sense to me, and there was nothing offensive in it. For me, anyway. I am not sure why someone else was bothered so much; perhaps there were other things going on that had an effect on her reading?

I also liked your recent post where you went into detailing what you had meant originally further. Thank you for taking the time to do this. It helps me to be more aware of both my actions and those of other people, and it's helpful having more guidance as to how conversations like the one you described can seem/feel to someone more introverted than I am.


By the way, I did not mean to imply that I took your post as an attack or a criticism, Jed. I read Maryann's original post as coming on with an unexpected flame thrower--your post appears to have pushed some buttons for her--but it is only reading the whole thread and your most recent post that I see my posting may be read the same way. I should point out I thought about what you said a long time, because it did push some buttons for me; the hubby has pointed out to me that I do hog the conversation in a social group at times, and that led me down an internal garden path reviewing my own experiences being shy, that led to my possibly tangential post. ;)

But be that as it may, I did think you were quite clear in your original post and I was not upset about what you said. I was upset by my own train of thought, and not very much. Now back to the regularly scheduled commentary in this blog... ;)


One of the definition of "extrovert" is "unreserved". With regards to coming up to people and talking to them, yeah, I'm pretty unreserved about it (In fact, I have been called "freaky" about this sort of thing). My experiences with striking up a conversation with more reserved folk is, initially, most of the conversational responsibility will be mine. I don't mind. I have no qualms about talking to strangers. It seems that "stage-fright" is not reserved for just a stage, and that my particular skills in this area are not something everyone has (just because someone is a performer doesn't mean she is an extrovert). This might seem odd: but I am always startled to find out how many people have trouble doing this; I figure if I can do it how hard can it be?

I feel lucky that I have this particular gift. But part of the fun of being my particular brand of extrovert is that I like being the center of the universe, and I need very little encouragment to assume what I consider is my rightful place. If my reassurances, Jed, have any weight, chances are if I am talking AT (not always to) you I am interested in you. Part of my extrovert skill-set is the ability to decide very, very quickly if someone is interesting to me. It is a situation I feel very comfortable trusting my instincts. I probably wouldn't continue talking with you if I wasn't interested in you.

But, here is the problem: I don't always remember that maybe you don't have the same ability. I just assume that if you are listening to me you are enjoying yourself. I forget that it is hard for other people to jump into the conversation (especially when someone like me is dominating it)

With regards to asking people questions, this really has nothing to do with being an extrovert. This is a completely different skill. Having been a bartender for awhile and snooping on other people's conversations (it is amazing how often people forget that I am there) most people don't ask questions about each other. It doesn't appear to be how conversations work.

I have been reading a great deal about cognitive psychology. One of the off-shoots of this sort of research seems to be considering different types of intelligence. Daniel Goleman wrote a book entitled Emotional Intelligence. Some of the thoughts in this book were inspired by meetings by the Mind Life Institute, which is a very interesting gathering of intellectuals centered around the Dali Lama. One of the key issues is people have different mental strengths. A comment that seems to be constantly being made about Tenzin Gyatso is his amazing ability to make it seem like his sole focus is on the person he is talking to. He is in the moment with that person!

Where I am going with this, in my long and meandering way, is: I don't think the ability to focus interest on another person is the same skill as being an extrovert. This skill might be available to an extrovert, but it might not. Most extroverts I know (me included) are very good at getting the ball rolling, but once it gets rolling it is very hard to stop! For me, once I get into my groove switching gears can be tricky. It isn't that I don't want to, it is just a different awareness. And from my view behind the bar, small talk is much easier than directly involving the conversation in the individual. I think that it is much better to actually be interested and focused on the person being conversed with, but not necessarily easy. Do I have this skill? Yes, I think I do. But I'm not sure it has anything to do with being an extrovert, and sometimes being an extrovert gets in the way. Being an extrovert is just helpful to approaching others, but once that person is engaged there might be another skill that needs to be put into play.

Sorry for the length of this, but it is something I have been indirectly giving a great deal of thought too for tangential reasons of my own. The short answer is: if an extrovert is burning up her social energy for you, chances are she considers you interesting, but her ability to be out going is one talent, and should not be confused with others she might or might not have. Personally, based on my observations, being more empathetic of others is something everyone could work on. After all, being only the practically perfect extrovert that I am, I have to have something that I can improve on.


Really?! Once upon a time I was an actress. I enjoy acting, I hated being an actress. The first thing people ask is: how did you last audition go? Well, if you are standing here talking to me and I'm not in rehearsals I probably didn't get cast. If I did get cast, then I have lots to talk about, but if I didn't...Oh, sure, I could give some touchy-feely answer about, "I thought I did a terrific job!" or, "I think they were looking for someone shorter." But the truth is, except in very peculiar circumstance, I have no idea what happened except I didn't get the role.

(and that's sometimes also why extroverts don't let others ask questions: we are very good at not talking about things we don't want too, and can steer the conversation accordingly)


oh...and I suppose I should add: I would be grateful to be asked about anything else! So easy to forget the important stuff in a conversation (even a typed one)


Don't forget to mention that you also give excellent backrubs while other people talk. 8-)


I've deleted an anonymous comment here that insulted Mary Anne. Please don't do that. She's my sweetie and I love her, and insulting her here isn't acceptable.

I have some further thoughts on various recent non-insulting comments (thanks for posting them), but I'm going to close comments on this entry. I hope to come back to various aspects of this topic in the future, but now's not a good time.