You Don’t Need to Be Talking to Be Engaged

One day a few years ago, I drove 40 miles east to my hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to participate in the care conference for my 79-year-old mom, who lived in the memory care unit of a nursing home there. (She has since died of Alzheimer’s disease.) I brought with me a copy of my new book, The Introvert Manifesto, to show her and my dad, who was also on hand for Mom’s periodic health update.

The book ended up tagging along to our meeting with the nurse and the social worker who were most involved in my mom’s day-to-day life at the facility. The social worker, Barb — who had always struck me as an introvert to begin with — took one look at the book, picked it up, and started reading.

She opened up to page 24, where she was immediately drawn to a piece entitled “Just Because I’m Not Talking Doesn’t Mean I’m Not Engaged.” As she sat there reading, she nodded and said “yes, yes.” Then she shared with me that she had struggled to articulate this very concept to the other people in her life, especially professionally — and that she was even concerned she might be perceived as disengaged for her upcoming election run for the Detroit Lakes City Council.

“I’ll listen for a long time before I say anything,” Barb stressed. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not participating. And it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

And yet, too often, engagement is equated solely with talking. Not talking is seen as not caring. Which is ironic, because I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate caring than to listen to someone else. Quietly.

This same dilemma resurfaced for me when I ran into Bruce Macfarlane’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education (United Kingdom) article entitled “No Place for Introverts in the Academy?” There he wrote, in the context of the college/university classroom:

“[T]here is no place in the new regime of student engagement for shy students who might participate in less obvious ways through active listening, making eye contact, taking good notes and even, dare I say, thinking. … Yet … listening and reflective introspection need to be understood as legitimate forms of class participation. Silence is just as likely as talking to indicate an engagement with the ideas of others.”

You can challenge Bruce on his use of the term “shy” as a synonym for “introverted,” but his argument is solid. In fact, he and Barb might as well change places. For they are thinking the exact same thing about engagement — an ocean apart, in completely different work environments. And they are most certainly not alone in their frustration.

The typical introvert is going to listen more than he/she talks, especially in settings like work meetings or classroom discussions. The typical introvert is going to take in the information, analyze it carefully, synthesize it in silence, and then — then — perhaps make a comment or offer some feedback or new insight.

That’s not disengagement. It’s the ultimate in true engagement. It just looks and feels a little different from the typical extravert’s idea of engagement.

As an introvert, you might not say much during a conversation or a presentation, at least not right away. But it’s not because you don’t care.

It’s because you do.

Questions Show That You Care — but So Does Waiting to Ask Them

It’s the first night of hockey practice for my son Theo, and he comes off the ice afterwards with a big smile on his face — one that shines right through the mask on his helmet.

“How was it?” I ask, knowing what the answer will be.

“Good,” he replies.

I was ready for that!

“1 to 10 it for me,” I say in return, asking him — as I often do with our kids and their activities — to rate it on a scale of 1 (worst experience of his life) to 10 (best).

“10,” he says instantly.

Cool! I’m excited for him! I’m supportive of him! I’m being a good dad!

We go to the locker room together, where I proceed to pepper him with more questions, as though he has somehow signed on to play goalie and stare down slapshot after slapshot.

“How were the skates?” He was wearing new ones for the first time. “You got a shot on goal there at the end — how did that feel?” And, as we are leaving: “You got all your stuff? Two elbow pads? Two shinguards? Two gloves? Two socks?”

We make our way out to the car, and once there I fire yet another shot from the blue line: “What was your favorite part of the night?”

Virtual silence.

I wasn’t ready for that.

But I should have been. I should know better; I’m an introvert. I write about introverts incessantly. And if there’s one thing I know about introverts, it’s this: We need five or 10 or 15 minutes to cool our jets after an intense experience before we can answer a bunch of questions about it.

Theo leans strongly introvert.


“Do you just want to sit there and veg for a while on the way home?” I ask sheepishly — knowing what the answer will be.

“Uh huh.”

Lesson learned. Lesson relearned.

Until the next day.

My wife Adrianne arrives home at about 4:00 after a long day teaching kindergartners. Squirrelly kindergartners. Kindergartners who are still getting into the swing of not only the new school year, but of school itself.

“How was your day?” I ask, knowing what the answer will be.

“Crazy,” she replies.

I was ready for that!

And I feel for my lovely wife! I’m supportive of her! I’m being a good husband!

“I can handle Katie’s gymnastics tonight,” I start in. Our daughter Katie has gymnastics three times a week for two hours each session.

“And you can still get to your yoga class later,” I add, launching into my detailed game plan with her like she’s taken a wrong turn in Albuquerque and stumbled into yet another after-school teacher consultation meeting.

“Just tell me what you need.”

A slight pause.

And then: “I don’t know?!” (with both the question mark and the exclamation point).

I wasn’t ready for that.

But I should have been. I should know better; I’m an introvert. I write about introverts incessantly. And if there’s one thing I know about introverts, it’s this: We need five or 10 or 15 minutes to cool our jets after an intense experience before we can answer a bunch of questions about it.

Adrianne is an introvert.


“I’m just going to sit here next to you and let you be, hon,” I say, knowing what her response will be.

Silence. Relief. The sense of being supported and cherished minus the words — until the time is right.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget, to say nothing of the irony. But apparently I need a poster to remind me:








Lesson learned. Lesson relearned.

For now, at least.

The Introvert’s Bill of Rights

As an introvert, I hold these truths to be self-evident. If you’re an introvert, I urge you to ratify them too:


I Have the Right to Remain Silent — not because I’ve been accused of some crime, but because silence is no crime. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk, or be talked to. Other times I’m simply listening silently, contemplating silently, or recharging silently. Silence doesn’t hurt; it helps.

I Have the Right to Seek Solitude — to find or create the revitalizing alone time I need to stay psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and physically healthy in our frenzied, stressful world. My alone time isn’t about rejecting anyone; it’s about protecting myself.

I Have the Right to Contemplate — to take the time I need to choose my words, weigh my decisions, and consider my actions — before I act (so I can prepare), after (so I can change course if necessary), or both. I am, therefore I think.

I Have the Right to Seek Depth — genuine substance and significance in my conversations, activities, and relationships. Small talk, shallow pursuits, and superficial people leave me unsatisfied and wanting. I need real human beings, real talk, and real pursuits.

I Have the Right to Focus — to avoid multitasking, interruptions, and haste so I can concentrate solely on whatever or whoever is right in front of me. The next thing can wait.

I Have the Right to Be Heard — to be truly listened to and understood — minus multitasking, interruptions, and haste — not because I’m more deserving than other people, but because I’m equally deserving.

I Have the Right to Share What I Want, When I Want, How I Want — to decide for myself, without pressure or judgment, what to say, when to say it, and how. My thoughts, feelings, and expressions are mine first — and last if I so choose.

I Have the Right to Be Seen as Normal — as normal as the extraverts of the world. My introversion isn’t a character flaw or a malady to be cured, any more than extraversion is. It’s a healthy, natural part of who I am.

I Have the Right to Define Myself, Not Defend Myself — to let my introversion stand without apology. I don’t expect the extraverts of the world to justify how they tick; I don’t have to justify how I tick either.

I Have the Right to Be Defined by What I Am, Not What I Am Not — by my many natural strengths, not by what others see as shortcomings; by what I have to offer, not by what others think I lack. I’m not an extravert wannabe; I’m an introvert.

Be the Introvert You Are — You’re Not Alone in Just Wanting to Be Yourself

I figured it was just me.

I didn’t really want to do the Bunny Hop with a bunch of fellow 18-year-olds I’d met — if you can call it that — only seconds before. I didn’t want to sing silly songs or participate in goofy icebreakers. I didn’t want to go to the freshman dance with its blinding strobe lights and deafening music. And I didn’t want to take part in any of the booze-soaked off-campus parties that were most definitely not college-sponsored or college-sanctioned.

It was the fall of 1985, almost 35 years ago now, yet this time of year I still remember it vividly: college orientation week, an experience I’d just as soon forget.

As Harvard University sophomore Eva Shang put it in her insightful article a few years ago entitled “To the Introverts of the Class of 2018″:

“If a modern Dante were to write The Inferno for introverts, specifically, he would probably paint a picture of something similar to opening week of college.”

The impossibly enthusiastic but well-meaning orientation leaders at my school, God bless them, were trying so hard. So hard. So hard to make us newbies, in our red new-student T-shirts with our red new-student folders, feel comfortable and welcomed, like part of a community.

But mostly I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I’d been beamed to the planet Frenzy and there was no escape from the group activities, or the group itself for that matter. No time to think, to breathe, to just simply be in this strange new environment, away from the family and familiarity of home.

It was all too much, way over the top. And so the events that had been designed to make me feel like I belonged instead made me feel like an outsider.

I figured it had to be me. Clearly something was wrong with me, and I was the only one thinking what I was thinking and feeling what I was feeling. Everyone else was having the time of their life, or so it seemed.

But I was mistaken.

As I’ve learned in the years since college, nothing was — or is — wrong with me. I was, and am, just an introvert, with tendencies and preferences that are simply different from, but not inferior to, those of extraverts.

Moreover, I now know that I wasn’t alone all those years ago. Depending on which statistics you believe, somewhere between one quarter and one half of us are introverts. So I wasn’t the only one struggling with stimulation overload. And I wasn’t the only one who would prefer to gravitate toward my own types of activities and build friendships my own way as the college years went on.

In fact, just the other day, College of William and Mary student Ethan Brown described his own orientation experience this way in his Flat Hat student newspaper column “Orientation Undermines New Student Adjustment“:

“By the first day of classes, I felt like I never wanted to talk to anyone again — I felt so depleted, and so emotionally exhausted, that I couldn’t imagine how I’d handle four years of being constantly ‘on.'”

Emerson College freshman Julia Tannenbaum put it like this recently (in a blog post she titled “Surviving Orientation“):

“[N]othing — not my single room, not my nightly phone vent sessions with my parents, not even The Great British Baking Show — could replenish the energy orientation had sucked out of me, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up the crumbs of a delicious homemade muffin (I really miss my mom’s cooking). It was so draining that at times, I worried I wouldn’t make it to the actual start of school.”

So it wasn’t just me.

And if you’re an introvert yourself, it wasn’t — or isn’t — just you, either.

If I’d had access to artices like Shang’s and Brown’s and Tannenbaum’s three-plus decades ago, I would have understood this a lot sooner than I ultimately did. It would have saved me a lot of confusion — and pain — if I’d simply had the chance to read sage advice like Shang’s:

“Don’t push it. There will be plenty of opportunities to make friends at any point in time — plenty of opportunities more suited to forming genuine connections than those initial weeks of mass introductions. Furthermore, don’t feel pressured to be social the same way everyone else is, especially if it isn’t your scene. You will not miss out on life or on college simply by taking a much-needed break.”

Shang’s advice applies to you, me, all of us who tend toward introversion. And it goes far beyond the college campus.

You’ll only “miss out on life,” as she puts it, if you try to be someone you’re not — instead of understanding and embracing who you really are.

Alone Time Comes in Several Satisfying Flavors — So Order the One You Want … When You Want It

My alone time isn’t my wife’s alone time. And hers isn’t mine.

We’re both introverts. Pretty strong ones if you believe our respective Myers-Briggs Type Indicator results. And yet I’ve noticed that Adrianne tends to prefer a type of alone time that is slightly but significantly different than the one I typically crave.

When Adrianne is ordering from life’s menu of alone time options, she generally picks Alone Time with Another — for example, alone time at the kitchen table with me at 8:30 at night, typing away at her computer as she firms up her lessons for the kindergartners she’ll be teaching the next day.

I just sit there drinking a sparkling water and reading a book. Or staring into space. Or reading a book and occasionally staring into space. Or staring into space and occasionally reading a book.

That’s because I usually order Alone Time All Alone if it’s available — the kind of alone time I picture in my fantasies: being completely by myself out in nature, for instance, so far away from everything and everyone that I can’t hear a sound, that I can’t help but be re-energized. Even if I can get Alone Time All Alone only in snack form, I’ll still usually order it over anything else.

So I might step out on Adrianne, briefly, during her (our?) Alone Time with Another to sit outside on our rocking bench for a few minutes, munching on my Alone Time All Alone bar and listening to nothing but the whispering wind and the faint sounds of the occasional train in the distance.

And yet … sometimes I myself actually order Alone Time with Another. One of the most revitalizing experiences of my life happened in Canada a few winters ago, when Adrianne and I spent an entire day reading alone — together — in a snuggly, isolated lake cabin in eastern Manitoba. It was my choice (albeit an easy sell where Adrianne was concerned!).

Adrianne orders her fair share of Alone Time All Alone, too. She has it every weekday morning, in fact, as she sits at that same kitchen table around 6:00 a.m. having her breakfast, drinking her coffee, and reading a book — by herself — while she readies herself to share the day with those same squirrely kindergartners she prepared her lessons for the previous night. As she was enjoying her Alone Time with Another, of course.

We all have different alone time palates, it turns out, and our tastes fluctuate considerably based on a whole host of variables. Among them: our ingrained natural preferences as introverts, our fatigue levels, what we’ve done and who we’ve been with (or not with) during the day, the time of day, the state of our health — physical, emotional, psychological — and who knows what else and when.

So it’s liberating and reassuring to know that you do indeed have several healthy menu options where alone time is concerned, Alone Time All Alone and Alone Time with Another being just two of them. You might also have an appetite for:

Alone Time with Accompaniment — alone time accompanied by, say, your favorite TV show or your favorite band. When I want Alone Time with Accompaniment, I think of a way to drive somewhere in my car … so that I can sing with Robert Plant as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” pounds the windows at a thousand decibels.

Alone Time with Ambiance — a combination of Alone Time with Another and Alone Time with Accompaniment: alone time with a few other people (and sounds) around. Think coffee shop on this one. Ideally, a coffee shop with just a few other people present — none of whom asks “May I join you?” — and equipped with surround-sound speakers that are softly playing Enya music.

You can order any type of alone time you want or need, whenever you want it or need it. It may not always be immediately available. But you can always get it to go so that you can savor it later.

Be sure to top it off with an extra treat sometimes too — something scrumptious if not exactly nutritious. Alone Time a la Mode, perhaps.