I wander to the quiet side in situations calling for chit-chat. While others exchange pleasantries, I remain silent, trying to think of something to say that anyone breathing would want to hear.
I commonly succumb to speechlessness during social functions. A concerned friend, trying to be helpful, once told me to write conversational hints on my palm before a party: “Bessy and Joe collect oil cans,” or “Don’s dog died.”
Wouldn’t hiding behind the drapes be less noticeable?
I worried about my conversational failings until I read Jonathon Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, and forgave myself. A character in the novel, a writer, explained that writing allowed him to be what he wanted to be. He could be funny because he had time to think of funny things. He could be confident because he had time to rethink his words: “With writing, I have second chances.”
In that passage, Foer explained me to myself. He helped me understand why I can’t think of anything to say to strangers in an elevator but enjoy giving speeches to large groups of them. When I give a speech, I have time to prepare, to revise, and to remember the words of beak-nosed Mr. Evans, my high-school speech teacher: “Practice, practice, practice until the words are what you want.”
Several years ago, I attended a workshop for people involved with non-profit organizations. Its theme was “creating effective personal and professional networks.” I assumed I would learn to use technology to contact fellow organizations and donors: a convenient, cozy way for me to communicate. I’d have unlimited time to think through and improve my message.
To my dismay, the instructor advocated face-to-face conversation as the best way to connect with donors. Convenient and cozy panicked and fled.
She proved her point by dividing us into small groups and giving us five minutes to discover three attributes we had in common. She urged us to find traits more unusual than wearing clothing, attending school, or walking.
I heard the theme from Mission Impossible as I surveyed my assigned fellows: a dewy-faced youngster who had yet to look up from her cellphone; a large, overlapping man with leadership ambitions; a fussy fellow who dropped things; and me—more comfortable with my computer keyboard than strangers.
Five minutes later, laughing like old friends, we reported we all struggled with how much to tip, had watched 24, and disliked liver. I had talked easily to strangers and survived.
I once read that an extrovert goes home after a social function thinking, “Why couldn’t I control my mouth? I talked way too much;” while an introvert thinks, “I couldn’t come up with a thing to say. They must think I’m a bit slow.”
As an introvert, my preference is to smile and linger mutely in a corner — like a happy houseplant — but thanks to a lifetime of experiences, such as a coerced conversation with strangers in a workshop, I know I can push beyond my comfort zone and chat it up with the best of them.
And when I do, I’m pleased with myself.