Joking, joking… but in all seriousness, striking up a random conversation with a total introvert can be difficult to navigate. Although introverts are often very intelligent, lovely people that make excellent friends, kindling a connection with one can be rather daunting.
Introverts tend to live in their own heads a lot, and can either be shy about opening up to new people, or just unbelievably awkward about doing so. That doesn’t mean they don’t like to meet others, but rather that it takes them a while to drop their walls and let other people in. This sometimes leads others to assume that introverts are frosty, standoffish, or even rude, when really they’re just wavering between protecting themselves emotionally, and hoping that they don’t choke on their drink or say something so utterly mortifying that it’ll haunt them forever.
Learn to Recognize Introverts Around You
If you haven’t yet discovered the joy of people watching when you’re out and about, try it sometime. Just observe others when you’re at a coffee shop or pub, or any other place where humans tend to congregate.
You’ll likely notice that there’s a huge difference between how natural extroverts and introverts interact with others. There are obviously no absolutes here, as the introversion/extroversion scale is huge and has many different variables, but in most cases you’ll be able to notice certain patterns of behavior common to the average introvert.
When sitting alone at a café, an extrovert may position himself or herself somewhere central, look up often, and engage with those around them. They might be restless, kicking their feet or tapping their fingers on the table, and have no qualms about getting chatty with random strangers who may sit near them. Chances are that if they’re at a coffee shop alone, they’re just waiting for one or eight friends to meet up with them, at which point they’ll join into animated discussion together.
Introverts, on the other hand, are more comfortable with solitude and stillness. They may curl up in a comfy chair in the corner and get totally engrossed in a book they’re reading, or focus so intently on whatever they’re working on that they’re barely aware of their surroundings. Interrupting this reverie with a loud opening line can startle them in a not-terribly-pleasant way. You’ll be met with a “deer in the headlights” expression as the person you’re talking to tries to decide whether to throw their drink at you before bolting for the door, or just hide under the table until you go away.
Similarly, if you go to a party at someone’s house, chances are that a couple of introverts will be hanging out in the kitchen, smiling briefly when other people come in, but focusing much more on befriending the household cat.
When striking up a conversation with an introvert, it’s best to avoid a direct compliment about them. Don’t tell them how hot they are, or that you couldn’t help but notice them from across the room, blah blah, because that’ll immediately be seen as the lame pick-up line it is. The exception to the “don’t compliment” rule is if they are either wearing something really cool, or if there’s an object somewhere near their person that piques your curiosity. For instance, if they’re wearing spectacular shoes, you can comment on their awesomeness and ask where they got them.
Be human, and don’t blather at them with insipid small talk. If they’re reading a book, consider asking them about it sincerely and politely. Saying something like “You seem really into that book. Is it good?” is a neutral, non-threatening approach that opens a door to conversation without making anyone feel self-conscious or uncomfortable. If you haven’t read the book, don’t pretend that you have: a simple question about what you thought about X character or a particularly irksome plot gap will reveal your bullshit approach and you won’t coax another word from them.
Asking their opinion is a great way to open the door to a more engaging conversation because most introverts spend a lot of time thinking about things. Take your cue from something they’re doing, or one of their possessions. If they’re reading a book about gardening, you can always ask them if they have a vegetable garden of their own. If so, ask what they grow, inquire about the different varieties that grow in your region. Sincere interest will encourage them to open up a bit, and you might be pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastic they can get about a topic that they love.
This method works really well if you’re an introvert too: just consider how you’d wish to be approached by someone else, and do that. Honestly. Just try it.
Keep a Respectful Distance
Few things will creep an introvert right the hell out as much as getting too close into their personal space. Most like to have a nice, wide berth between them and other people until they get comfortable enough to let them “in”, so if a stranger suddenly leans in close, grinning like a ravenous shark, they go into high alert.
Even worse than getting too physically close too quickly is unsolicited touching. The average extrovert will touch someone they’re talking to several times during a conversation. This might be exhibited as nudging someone with their elbow, tapping them on the forearm, or touching them on the hand or knee to make a physical connection as they talk. (If you listen carefully right now, you can likely hear half a dozen introverts emitting some high-pitched shrieks at the mere thought of this.)
Keep your hands to yourself, and don’t touch them unless they initiate contact with you first.
Let Them Determine the Follow-Up
If the conversation went well, give them the opportunity to continue it at another time, or via another medium. Don’t just go and ask them out (see “deer in headlights”, mentioned earlier), but let them know that you’d love to talk about X subject more later.
If you have a business card, feel free to give it to them so they can drop you an email or text later. You can ask if they’re cool with sharing a social media handle with you: just make sure you leave the power to connect in their hands.
Don’t Get Offended if They Don’t Want to Talk
Introverts only have so much energy to dole out when it comes to socializing with others, and it could very well be that the one you’re interested in befriending is “peopled out” for the day. Their seeming lack of interest is far more likely a situation of being drained rather than apathetic, so if they don’t want to talk, smile and move along elsewhere.
Do keep in mind that this last little bit of advice doesn’t just go for introverts, but for any person you’d like to get to know. No one exists at anyone else’s convenience, and just because YOU want to talk to THEM doesn’t mean that they are obligated to do so in order to make you happy. Courtesy goes a long way, and if you back away from a social interaction to show that you respect the other person’s autonomy, you may very well find that they take the initiative to connect with you later.
Are you an introvert who hates those awkward first introductions? Does the advice above sound accurate to you? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.