Introvert Extrovert: Reaching out across the abyss


Of course it’s not really an abyss. 🙂 But sometimes we need to stop to think how things look from the other side of the fence. A couple of weeks ago Mark commented on the post Don’t ask an introvert if he’s OK!, and since that post was one of the ones from early August, I thought a lot of you may have missed his comment.  It was a constructive comment, and I think it was important for all of us introverts to read and consider. So here it is again:

This issue is that people who are friendly really do care about you. They ask “are you ok?” because they really do care about your well being and will listen if you need to vent. They ask you this question because they are trying to make a connection with you in a safe way. Extremely introverted and private people are extremely hard to have as friends. They want the relationship 100% on their time, emotional convenience schedule, etc. Relationships need to have both parties trying. Go into work and say “good morning” and SMILE at people when you see them. You are making contact and when you are busy they will see that but since you had a word or two and eye contact/facial expressions that says “emotionally, etc. I am ok” they will give you the space you desire.

I see his point.  It’s no fun at all to have a friend who is sometimes friendly and sometimes aloof, making you guess whether today is the day you should try to talk to him and enjoy his company. Yet Mark is trying to be a good friend to one or more introverts and would gladly lend an ear whether they want to unload problems or share good things. He genuinely cares about them, but if they come into the office and won’t smile or talk, he doesn’t know whether something is wrong and he should help as a friend, or if they are just withdrawing from him because they need their time alone. The on-again/off-again friendliness is not fair to Mark.

On the other hand, a lot of the time the person asking, “Are you OK?” is not our friend at all, even if they may want to be. We crave our privacy and don’t want strangers intruding and talking about anything as personal as the expression we happen to be wearing. Even if this person is interested in getting to know us, I would think, “Are you OK?” is not the thing to say, if he’s just commenting on the fact that an introvert is deep in thought.

In my case, the first minutes when I arrive at the office, I really don’t want anyone to stop by and talk to me, or worse still, to stop me while I’m trying to walk to my desk. I always come in through a side door so I don’t pass the receptionist or the break room. I really want to get my laptop going, take care of little emails that straggled in overnight, all in silence, then I’m more receptive to someone who wants to chat. I guess my brain is stimulated enough just coming into the office after a night of being away, and it doesn’t want one more thing to annoy it. Of course this means I really should just come in a few minutes early each day, and I do try to do that. That way by the time 8 am arrives, I am ready for coworkers or any other issues that might have seemed to be a bit too much when I first arrived.

Can you see a way for introverts to do their part to be good friends to their extrovert buddies? Can we get the solitude we need and still be fair and consistent with those who want to be friends with us?

Photo credit: RBerteig



  1. Yet again another brilliant article and commentary on how it is to be an introvert in what seems to be an extrovert world.

    I really disagree with the statement:
    “Extremely introverted and private people are extremely hard to have as friends.”

    If you find it difficult to be someone’s friend because they are less social, less talkative and a bit more private, you haven’t really taken the time to get to know that person. If you have a person like that as a friend and that person is still around you, that person has actually taken the time to know you and most likely enjoy your company.

    I also disagree somewhat that someone who asks “Are you OK?” is a true caring friend. Depending on the situation, but if you ask that question in public to a person who physically seems fine is not caring, it’s more in the direction of being rude. And when you have to question the question itself, “Are you OK?”, then something isn’t right.

    I would actually more likely respond to and feel less offended or intruded upon if someone asked me “Why are you acting like that?” Because then they are at least honest about being confused about your behaviour. And they are also more likely to accept any answer.

    I have the same annoyance with “Hi, how are you?” I honestly sometimes want to reply with “Hi, non of your business!”
    I’ve had a few funny experiences with this greeting:
    Person: “Hi, how are you?”
    Me: “Hi!”
    Person: “Good, thank you.”

    The response is so routine for some they actually assume you will and have said, “Fine, thanks. How are you?”

    I do understand that the sometimes blunt honestly can be extremely confusing for some extroverts, but hey, some of your actions confuse us too sometimes. 🙂

    • Thanks Xen! 🙂 Very good points, and this is a great way for extroverts to learn to understand us a little bit more – including why we react the way we do to some things they say or do with even the best intentions.

      I’m with ya – definitely the “Are you OK?” should never be asked in front of others, if you’re really concerned about someone.

  2. Just noticed your catchy header, nice. ^^

    Back to the topic: It’s possible if the extrovert friends are aware of the reason why you behave like you do. Sometimes when I don’t feel like chatting, I just keep quiet and people will think something’s wrong with me, or something bad happened. Yup, get that often if I have things in my head. lol.. It’s annoying sometimes to explain ‘I’m fine’ and people still give you that suspicious look.

    So, in the end of the day, I prefer to hang out when I’m all in ‘chatting’ mode; or being with my friends who know me well and comfortable with who I am. So I learn to understand about people having mood swings and don’t feel like talking. I certainly can respect my introvert friends for the space they need and observe if they’re willing to hang out/chat. For me, if they being honest of who they are, I’m ok with that.
    .-= Ching Ya´s last blog ..Seesmic Desktop Is Ahead of the Game with Twitter Lists Integration =-.

    • Thanks Ching Ya! Isn’t that something when people won’t take, “I’m fine!” for an answer! It’s great you can empathize with your introverted friends and understand why they may want to talk sometimes and not sometimes.

  3. I used to be this way, but then I started bike commuting. Now I arrive at work full of smiles. Partially endorphins, but also since it takes an hour to get to work on the bike, I’ve had transition time.

    I wonder – does it help to take time in the mornings for yourself before you even leave to go to work?

    I also learned, thanks to bike commuting, that a smile and a head nod is pretty much universally understood to be as real of a greeting as an actual “good morning”. I use it even at work. I am noise sensitive in the morning, and that’s part of why (for me) I actually hate hearing anyone talk (or talk myself) or say good morning or anything like that until I’ve had some time to adjust to being around people, or being awake or something. But a smile and nod (or wave) I can do.

    I think we sometimes forget that we can bridge in a way that’s natural for us. Body language, non-verbal cues, can become great tools for us to use.

    Mark is right, though, about giving the people around use the “okay” cues. It makes it easier on us all – they’re not going to worry about us, and we don’t have to have the “are you okay” conversation. It’s so much easier to just smile and nod or even do a real greeting on our way to our desks, than to have an actual conversation if we’re not up for one.

    People also will learn our routines. If we smile and greet without stopping when we’re on our way to our desks in the morning, that’s what they expect, and that’s what they’ll accept.

    • Deb that is a great idea – I really NEED to manage to have a few minutes before I leave that are not hurrying/scurrying – then maybe I would arrive at work a little more relaxed and open. As it is, yes I have perfected the brisk walk, saying, “Hi!” as brightly but quickly as I can, when I first arrive at the office. Very good – we can head off the “are you okay” question if we make a little effort to show that we are indeed fine.

      • Biking to work is the only reason I can say hello to my coworkers without sounding dead. Weather permitting I spend half an hour biking to work int the morining. I start at seven, but arive at about six thirty, so I come in, exchange greetings with the two of the other ladies who start as early as I do, then mosey off to the nice quiet lunchroom to get coffie and read the paper before I start. Ocassionaly I see the one of the other ladies who has a smoke at this time, then a little before I have to start, go over and settle into my desk. Having that quiet time during my ride and then in the lunch room is how I prime myself for my busy day on the phones. In the winter when I have to take the buss I don’t get that time to myself, and by the time I arrive at work I already feel somewhat wound up and my battery partialy drained. If you can, ariving early and having quiet extended travel time is a great way to prime your battery for a day at work. Makes it easier to greet coworkers as well. Also I find I get the “are you Ok?” question less when I exchange greetings upon arival than when I just go hide at my desk.

  4. I can understand the points Mark made, but at the same time, I still think that people who out of the blue ask” Are you ok?” or “Why aren’t you smiling?” are being rude and lack sensitivity, even if they think that they are being sensitive and caring by asking. As I said in the other entry, I don’t go around commanding other people to stop smiling or to stop laughing, so why do I have to tolerate people commanding me to smile and laugh just to make them comfortable. I have to take a stand on that and say, “No, I’m Not having it”, because what I have noticed is that the same people who come around making comments about my behavior, are the ones who won’t make a change to suit anyone else. I experienced this with one former coworker who always showed every emotion, including cackling loudly all the time and being generally LOUD. One time I told her that she had a big mouth, and she just laughed it off like my complaint was invalid. But in the past, she had mentioned the fact that I was quiet. So it was ok for her to make a comment about me, but not for me to say something to her, because she didn’t even take my complaint seriously anyway, even though her LOUD behavior was definitely a disruption. And she was very defensive about herself, too, and took every comment personally, which made having to deal with her even worse. At this same job, a manager would always ask me if anything was wrong because for the most part, I didn’t talk and I had a naturally serious expression on my face. After a while, I really didn’t know how to respond to him. I think, at one point, I told him, in a nice and explanatory way, that that’s just the way I am, so if I look serious and I am not talking a lot, that doesn’t mean that there is something wrong. I understood the managers point of view because I knew that he was used to more expressive employees, so the fact that I wasn’t like that, threw him for a loop. But once again, I can’t just change my personality to suit someone else, just like how more expressive, outspoken people aren’t going to just change to suit me. They see their behavior as their way of being, so they need to afford that same understanding to others. In my opinion, it’s really not that difficult.

    There have been a few times when I asked someone if he or she was ok, but usually I will do that if I am already having a conversation with that person and I notice that the person seems sad and not like his or her usual self. There is a big difference between asking someone a question like that if the observed behavior is out of character for that person, and simply going around making comments to people all the time. Because after a while, that behavior of making comments to someone about whether or not he or she is ok and why he or she is not smiling more, becomes annoying to the the recipient of the comments and the recipient of the comments will then either become so irritated that he or she suddenly snaps at the person who is making the comments or the recipient of the comments goes into avoidance mode.

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  6. Boy, I’ve got so many thoughts on this I don’t even know where to start. I am about as deeply introverted as it gets, and I find that being around people all day at work really saturates me as far as socializing goes. I hardly have energy left for partner and family after working all week, so I am really not too interested in friends. I just don’t have the energy or desire. Is that unfair to people who really do want to befriend me? I suppose so, but it is what it is. I do greet everyone with a smile when I arrive at work. I am usually cheerful but I find that if I am too pleasant, I encourage too many cubicle visits. It seems like there’s no happy medium to be found.

    I would rather have someone ask me “Are you OK?” than have him or her assume that I’m in a bad mood because I’m quiet. I often get accused of being “crabby” and “in a bad mood” when I want to be left alone. If someone would ask me, with genuine concern, “Are you OK?” I think I’d be glad to answer in kind, “Yes, I’m fine, thanks for asking, I’m just enjoying some quiet time.” Provided of course that the person would GO AWAY after that without getting all pissy about it.

    One more observation – sometimes people really ARE being friendly and concerned and caring. But my experience has been that usually they aren’t – usually, they just want an audience. “Are you OK?” means “Can I talk TO you about MY problems?” “Did you have a nice weekend?” means “I want to tell you all about MY weekend but I think it’s just polite to ask about yours first; I know you won’t say much but then I can tell you ALL about mine.” I know I sound cynical and maybe a little bitter, but I’m really tired of people sucking energy from me all day long!
    .-= hermit loner´s last blog ..A Little Privacy, A Lot of Happy =-.

    • Hermit Loner – I have had the same experience with starting out too pleasant/friendly with someone then being unable to get them to go away. It seems that some people you just can’t be nice to! 😉

      I like that – maybe for an imaginary plaque on my desk. “GO AWAY. And don’t be pissy.”

  7. I guess I’m an extreme introverts hahaha. oh my goodness, I experienced what you are talking about several days ago. I was carpooling w my friend, her cousin, and her cousin’s husband for a trip to Frisco. One of the most annoying trips ever because Larry kept bugging me and kept asking me “why are you so quiet? What wrong with you?” He’s clueless and didn’t understand I will say something when I have something to say. I guess I could have opened up a bit more if I had a spare pack of batteries but being in a car w three extroverts is exhausting.

    On a side note, the trip was fun after I was allowed my own time and did some wandering of my own : )

    • Exhausting! Even just fun chitchat might have drained your battery eventually, but having to defend your boundaries continuously really does it. Glad you got some time on your own and were able to enjoy the trip!

  8. I wanted to add that sometimes the workplace can be a downright hostile environment to introverts or anyone, for that matter, who seems a bit quiet and may not feel like talking. What I am talking about is a level of hostility that goes way beyond someone simply asking “are you ok?”. I’ve experienced that kind of hostility at a couple of now former jobs. If you tell someone that you don’t feel like talking, either that person will understand and be gracious enough to back off for a while, or sometimes there are people who become angry and start to interrogate the person who doesn’t feel like socializing. It can be quite intimidating to deal with. And as soon as someone seems a bit moody or withdrawn, other people take that as a sign to become even more intrusive, instead of simply having enough respect to give a person some space to breathe. I’ve read enough workplace advice forums or fora (not sure which one to use), in which there were posters who wanted to know how to get their quiet coworkers to come out of thier shell, so to speak. The way they described the situation made it seem like they were on a mission to change the quiet coworker because in their opinion, the quiet coworker wasn’t fitting in to the workplace culture. My thinking on that is that if the person in question isn’t being disruptive or confrontational, and the only “problem” is that the person is quiet and reserved, then there really isn’t a problem. The only time it would be a problem is if the person was quiet and refused to engage in issues pertaining to work related matters, and in most cases that isn’t the complaint, so therefore there really isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed.

    I had a professor, several years ago, who mentioned this type of mentality in the workplace. She said that sometimes employees will try to run the quiet coworker out of the workplace. At first I didn’t really take her seriously, until I started to think back to a couple of experiences I had had early on in my working days, and some experiences that I have had since my professor mentioned it, and I realized that my former professor had been absolutely correct.

  9. It’s funny you mention the appearance of being unreceptive to coworkers in the morning, because I have had that specifically discussed on performance reviews in the past, with the view that it’s MY problem that I need to change. I’ve been trying to figure a whole bunch of stuff out in the past year, and I’ve been finding out how much of my self-acceptance has suffered because I’ve learned from others over the years that my introverted traits aren’t okay.

    Like Deb I find that when I ride my bike to work I’m more likely to be “warmed up” and more capable of engaging with people as soon as I enter the door. But not always, especially in winter when it’s cold and wet outside.
    .-= heather´s last blog ..Sweetpea Journey #6: More Than the Sum of Its Parts =-.

    • Heather it is such a shame people seem to be so ignorant about introverts. It’s no longer enough that someone arrives at the office and does her job, apparently. I’ve started coming in a few minutes early to be alone for about 10 minutes, and also of course I sort of steel myself when I hear the ones who “make the rounds” getting close. I know I’ll smile and say hi and yes I had a good weekend, and then I can get back to checking email and getting started in silence for a few more minutes. I used to work out a lot, and I’m trying to remember if I felt a little more “warmed up” even in the mornings when I was doing that. It’s worth a shot – I just keep procrastinating starting back. 🙂

  10. This is a post that really highlights cultural differences between my country and the United States. In Sweden, the notion of anybody at work asking their colleagues if they are OK (unless they look really ill, or unless they have been on sick leave or something) is pretty much unheard of. That’s not to say that all Swedes are introverts – there are plenty of very extroverted people here, but our cultures are sometimes rather different.

    One facet of this is something I found out when I visited San Francisco a couple of years ago: I found it really difficult to handle the way people in shops asked me how I was doing. I understand completely that it’s just an empty phrase in most cases, and of course I’m capable of smiling and saying “Fine, thanks” (and I still don’t know if that’s the expected response!), but it seemed like such an inappropriate and intimate question that very soon I stopped going into shops unless I really had to. Not to mention the practice of asking for my _name_ in coffee shops – how hard is it to say “One latte is ready” or just give the customers a number, and call out “Number fifteen”? The coffee shop staff are not my friends, they don’t need to know and use my name, it’s another forced simulated intimacy that to me as a Swede and as an introvert is very off-putting indeed. (And because the spelling of my name isn’t obvious to an English-speaker, I ended up having to spell out my name every time I wanted a cup of coffee, and more often than not it was misspelt on the cup anyway. How friendly is that?) Eventually I started telling them my name was Mary, just to get out of the situation…

    • Hi LA, Yes, isn’t it a shame – people who have no idea they are alienating a customer with all that familiarity so they actually caused you to avoid the shops entirely! I agree totally about the coffee shops too. Why do they have to have your name and call it out? “Mary” was a good idea. One time a guy interrupted me talking to my companion to yell out, “Hey, I need a name for this cup!” I told him, “Call it ‘Cup.'”

      Thanks so much for your comment, and I hope you’ll return to Introvert Zone soon!

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