Insert a Little Depth to Turn Small Talk into Something Much Bigger — and Better

I’m OK with plain old talk. More than OK.

But God I hate small talk.

“Nice weather we’re having.” “Is this your first time here?” “Pretty good game yesterday, huh?”

Blah blah blah, blah blah blah.

We can’t really swear off of small talk, though, because a) it actually serves a useful purpose, and b) it’s part of life, no matter how much we introverts might gag at the mere thought of it.

So lately, I’ve been trying to put an introvert’s spin on small talk by doing my best to give it some depth and substance — right out of the gate. And to my surprise, I’m discovering that it often works, preserving both my energy and my sanity in the process.

Let me give you an example. I spent most of last week helping out at my kids’ elementary school, since it was ice skating week — and, therefore, the gym teachers needed lots of parents on hand to tie skates. And keep the kids from hospitalizing themselves. Or others. Or both.

I love skating week. It gives me an excuse to skate myself, I get to spend some quality time with elementary-age kids (including my own when they were younger), and on occasion I even get to teach a child how to skate.

Still, when I was sitting alone quietly in the warming house on a Wednesday morning, sipping on my coffee and waiting for the thundering herd of buffalo to show up, I cursed to myself when I saw another parent walking through the door.

Rats. Small talk, here we come.

The weather was especially nice that day, for these parts, so I could have easily gone with the weather channel during that awkward silence when someone has to actually begin the conversation. But instead I was inspired by something — something that hadn’t occurred to me before: If half the population leans toward introversion, as research suggests, then I’m just as likely to be dealing with a fellow introvert right now as I am an extravert. And she might welcome “big talk” as much as I would. It could hardly hurt to try.

So I threw out this: “Is one of your kids coming today?”

Yes, the woman said, her daughter would be in the third group of skaters.

Then silence. And the faint sounds of crickets chirping.

OK, time to get serious.

“I always enjoy this week,” I said. “I saw something really cool yesterday: A kid had his arm around his friend for a good half-hour, teaching him how to skate while everyone else was goofing around. It was really nice to see a kid helping another kid who was struggling, without being told and without making a big deal out of it.”

The woman agreed, then briefly mentioned how her daughter had struggled some in school last year but has been straightening things out this year — with a bit of a, ahem, pep talk from the principal.

“Yeah,” I agreed, “we have our struggles with our kids too. They often can’t hear me when I tell them to do something. But I’ve noticed that their response time is near instantaneous when they hear I bought cookies.”

And just like that, my fellow parent and I had let our respective guards down, chatting only briefly yet affirming for each other that raising kids is indeed tricky business. And that no one — no one who’s honest, at least — escapes the difficult parts.

Take that, “nice weather we’re having.”

For Some Introverts, Happy Hour Is a Dilemma — While for Others It’s Merely an Oxymoron

My wife Adrianne sees herself as an extraverted sort of introvert, and she is. If introversion is a mixed drink, Adrianne’s sometimes has a little extra extravert thrown in to spice things up a bit. It all depends on her mood, though, along with her fatigue level and a host of other factors.

I see myself as an introverted sort of introvert, and I am. My introversion cocktail almost always features a double-shot of introvert to solidify the taste. And that tends to be that. There is rarely any “it depends.”

How does this distinction play out in real life for us? Well, speaking of drinks … let’s talk about happy hour.

My wife is one of those special saints known as a kindergarten teacher. You can only imagine the energy she expends each day as she addresses children’s difficulties both real and imagined. She has to actually deal with “he’s looking at me,” “I have to go to the bathroom,” and an assortment of other emergencies every minute, making dozens of quick decisions in the process. She is on constantly. I go in to the school on occasion to help volunteer and I’m toast in two hours flat. I don’t even know how Adrianne — or her colleagues — stay alive. Or sane.

So it’s not surprising to me that Adrianne is herself toast by many a Thursday night. This past Thursday night was no different — except that her colleagues had invited her to go to happy hour with them after work the next day.

And she had no idea what to do.

Now, happy hour is an easy-to-bat-off oxymoron to an introverted introvert like me. I know with certainty, well ahead of time — I could give you my answer a year in advance — that I will not at all be happy spending an hour (or more) in a bar or restaurant setting surrounded by loud music and a din of voices that drown out any possible meaningful conversation I could have with someone. I will never be happy during happy hour. Unless it gets moved to the coffee shop and I can sit there drinking a latte by myself and reading a good book. Ahh. Now, that’s a happy hour. Otherwise, no thanks.

Easy decision. A no-brainer for an introverted introvert like me.

Adrianne, on the other hand, was conflicted about whether to go to happy hour, which made her even more stressed than she already was. She wasn’t torn by some sense of obligation. No, this was real. Half of her, almost literally, desperately wanted to take part and hang out with her colleagues in a non-work setting, perhaps trading war stories or, even better, talking about anything but work and kids. But the other half of her knew she would pay a price for going to happy hour, even if she had the time of her life; that she’d be more exhausted afterward than she was going in. And that there would be no guarantee that the weekend in our busy family would bring any real opportunity for her to recharge her batteries. Not completely, at least.

So Adrianne had yet another decision to make — a hard one — after yet another day already filled with them. And in some ways it was a no-winner for an extraverted introvert like her.

The decision couldn’t have been easier for me had I been in her shoes. There would have been no decision at all, really. There would have been nothing to wrestle with, no sense of being pulled in two equally plausible directions at once.

Adrianne had to fight through all of that and more. Because while she and I share so much, both as husband and wife and as fellow introverts, her unique sense of introversion plays out in slightly but significantly different ways from mine at times.

And you can say that about any two introverts you might compare side by side. They will be similar. Very similar. But they will not — they cannot — ever be the same.

And happy hour’s only the start.

You Don’t Have to Be All Alone to Tap Into the Energizing Quiet

I’m partway through my second semester of auditing an introductory French course at a local college, “auditing” being a code word for “I’m taking the full-fledged class, but I’m paying almost nothing for it — and I don’t get graded; I can just learn for the sake of it.” It’s a beautiful arrangement, one that eliminates a great deal of the stress involved.

But not nearly all of it.

For starters, I am a shade (three decades) older than the regular, everyday undergraduates in the class. I think I fit in pretty well; in true introvert form, I simply try to blend in. To the degree that a 51-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch guy with long hair and a gray beard can pull this off, I do. But I still stick out — especially when a) I frequently remember the historical events the instructor mentions that occurred long before my classmates were born; and b) my personal brand in class has become “Le Vieil Homme Qui Déteste les Examens Orals”: “The Old Man Who Hates Oral Exams.”

Even more stressful — and therefore predictably draining — is the daily classroom culture, which by design and, really, necessity involves unending interactions where we newbies to the language do our best to talk to each other and the professor. In French, of course. “Broken French” sort of understates it, as does “Franglais.” Which is why our professor should be nominated for either sainthood or a set of noise-canceling headphones.

We students, feeding off of the professor’s remarkable supply of genuine patience and encouragement, have a healthy, we’re-all-in-this-together attitude about our classroom, um, discussions. But it’s a tough thing to do, day in and day out. Especially when you’re an introvert — like me, for example — and you have to not only think on your feet, but perform linguistic feats. In French, of course.

The other day, for example, we spent the first 30 minutes of the 70-minute session walking around the room, asking each other and responding to — in French, of course — more than 20 questions the professor had taped to the walls on little scraps of paper. It was just another day at the office. It could just as well have been one of the frequent days when we have what I can only call conjugation races: Three or four teams of us line up in the front of the room, and we race to conjugate various French verbs, writing our often creative answers on the white board — in French, of course — while frantically trying to extract them from our brains.

In Franglais, of course.

I have to concede that, in their own way, these activities are kind of fun. They put you in situations exactly like the ones you’ll be in if you’re really trying to speak French to a real French speaker in a real French-speaking setting. That’s why I signed up for this course in the first place last September, and it’s why I re-upped a few weeks ago to take a second semester.

Basically, I asked for this.

But somehow, still, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning during my drive to campus, I naively pray:

Please, God, let us just sit and learn today.

God, though He is infallible, chuckles and responds:

Well, you will sit in your chair in class and talk to the people around you in the kind of French only a mother could love. In the process, you will learn. Prayer answered.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that when I go to class each day, I go not just a little early, but ridiculously early. As in 20, 25, 30 minutes early. I need to be able to just sit, in peace, and get myself into student mode. Introverted student mode. Alone.

But lately I’ve noticed something: No matter how early I myself arrive, there’s always one other guy who is either already there or who arrives at virtually the same time as I do. And for the last week or two, we’ve been joined by a young woman doing the same thing.

Perhaps this doesn’t strike you as newsworthy. But when it means, for example, that I was not alone today in arriving at 9:54 a.m. for a class that begins at 10:30 a.m., it’s not so out there to think that something’s up. Something well beyond simply not being late.

It’s a silent arms race.

Maybe I should call it a space race. The three of us students, all of us obviously similar in personality if not nearly so similar in longevity, clearly need to charge up for what’s to come. And we all would seemingly prefer to do that alone. So we all keep going to class earlier and earlier in an attempt to outflank each other.

Pretty soon we’ll be lined up outside the classroom door — or the locked academic building — at 9:54 p.m. the previous night, making sure we claim our alone time as though it’s in limited supply during a Black Friday sale.

Fortunately, though, I don’t really need to come out on top in this introverted chess match. Neither do my deux (two) fellow étudiants (students). We just share the quiet, silently confirming what’s going on and why.

And seemingly knowing that we all win.

It’s Not Whining — It’s Advocating

A colleague and I had just finished delivering a 90-minute workshop on job search strategies for introverts. Most everyone had left the room, so we were sitting on the edge of our presentation table quietly decompressing, as we introverts are prone to do after pouring our energy into something that matters.

It was then that a lone woman walked up to us, in tears, and whispered:

Thank you. For the job hunting tips, yes, but more so for helping me realize that there’s nothing wrong with me; I’m just an introvert.

I’ll never forget those words or, especially, the raw emotion behind them — the relief and the hope and the bounce in one’s step that come with a decades-old mystery positively solved.

The same thing had happened to me several years earlier in a workshop on personality type, when I too had come to the same realization in essentially the exact same words, which I remember flashing through my head ala an electronic billboard:

There’s nothing wrong with me!


I’m just an introvert!

These personal experiences, direct and indirect, drive my work on introverts and introversion. I see myself as someone who, to the best of my ability, illuminates introverts (makes them clear, to themselves and others) and in some ways enlightens extraverts (makes them aware of introversion as a normal, healthy personality trait). I see myself as an introvert advocate, humbly trying to contribute something good to the world while freely acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers.

Unfortunately, some people are bound to see me — and anyone else who does this type of work, formally or informally — as a hopeless whiner with an incurable case of the poor me’s combined with generalized trying-too-hard disorder.

It’s happened before. While many people in my life have responded positively to the work I do and to my book The Introvert Manifesto, some just don’t understand it. Or, worse, they give it labels like “icky” or “negative.” A few people have even told me that, ironically, in a “thou doth protest too much” type of twist, I inadvertently or even subconsciously admit that something is inherently wrong with me and my fellow introverts by so frequently and vocally arguing that there is not!

It all comes with the territory, I guess. But I hate it. As marketing guru Seth Godin once put it: “Nobody says, ‘Yeah, I’d like to set myself up for some serious criticism!’” I sure don’t. And while I can stand back and admire the many people around me who seem to let criticism roll right off their backs, I’ll be honest: The negative feedback hurts and gets the best of me sometimes, especially since I know my own heart and good intentions — not to mention the truth behind my own sometimes painful experiences as an introvert in a very extraverted world, to say nothing of the painful experiences of other introverts. All of it is real. To me, at least, and to millions of others as well.

And so I will continue to take my chances in the work I do, knowing that my words and my experiences are never the truth but remembering that they are most definitely my truth as well as the shared truth of many other introverts out there.

If you’re an introvert, I encourage you to do the same. You’ll take your hits in speaking out. But remember: There’s nothing wrong with you; you’re just an introvert. And in feeling that and expressing that and embracing that, you’re not whining; you’re simply advocating.

Introversion Doesn’t Need to Be Defended; It Just Needs to Be

Just about every time I go to the local YMCA, I see a guy I used to work with — during the Reagan administration.

He doesn’t recognize me, or so it appears, as he’s lifting his weights or chatting quietly with one of the other pre-lunchtime regulars. But I easily recognize him as I’m doing my three-mile run around the track. He’s, well, recognizable, a pretty well-known member of the local media, and I’m fairly sure he’s friends with my sister-in-law as well.

I was just an intern when we worked together — if you can call being in the same department and occasionally having occasion to talk working together — so he truly may or may not remember me. It really could go either way. Sometimes I think he’s thinking the exact same thing I am (“I know that guy”), but sometimes I think he’s simply doing the same thing I am: trying to stay alive at the health club and focusing on that and that alone.

He isn’t at all full of himself. He wasn’t back then and he certainly isn’t now. He’s not an unapproachable celebrity or anything even close. He’s just a guy, same as me.

Part of me wants to go up to him and re-introduce myself. But I don’t. I haven’t yet, at least, and it’s fifty-fifty as to whether I’ll ever do so.

It’s not because I’m shy. That much I know, although social anxiety does get to me in some situations. It’s actually a function of the energy involved — for me, at least, and in my mind perhaps for him as well, as it seems like he’s an introvert too and would prefer, in his heart of hearts, to be left to his workout.

But there’s more to the story. I also hold back because I can’t (yet) answer the $64,000 question that always plagues me in these situations: “why?” As in “why bother?”

As soon as I ask the question I receive an unwelcome but inevitable injection of “shoulds” into my brain, shoulds that have been drummed into my introvert head all my life and that only add to the messy, frustrating concoction of shoulds already in there, mucking things up: “You should go say hi.” “You should go talk to him.” “You should go connect with him.” “You should this.” “You should that.”

Followed in each case, as I said, by: “why?” Endless internal debate. It’s exhausting.

My friend Barbara Winter, author of the liberating book Making a Living Without a Job, has a saying: “Do talk to strangers.” Because, she says (and even I know it’s true more often than not), good things can happen as a result. She’s apt to talk to the person sitting next to her on the plane, for example. I’m not, which somehow makes me feel crummy.

So Barbara’s unspoken “should” is part of my already overflowing mind mix. And I have no reason to doubt her wisdom.

Meanwhile, in her thought-provoking book The Law of Divine Compensation, which I just finished reading, author Marianne Williamson talks about a mutually beneficial interaction she once had with the taxi driver who took her to the airport, concluding:

He had introduced himself to me; I had asked him about himself. Those two things — seemingly meaningless moments of human connection — opened the door through which the universe could provide its gifts to both of us. … Most of the time, we block our reception of a miracle by believing it couldn’t be that easy.

Yikes. I have no reason to doubt Marianne Williamson, either. And yet, again, I’d be prone to not chatting too much with someone driving me to the airport.

So add Marianne’s “should” to the cognitive dissonance sauce too. Might as well.

This is my introverted life. Wanting to preserve my own energy and be true to myself on the one hand, not wanting to block my (or anyone else’s) reception of a freaking miracle on the other. All the while knowing that other people aren’t focused too much on me to begin with. They’re focused on themselves, on doing their own thing.

I don’t have any tips on how to deal with this little psychological war. I just hate shoulding all over myself, as behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis once put it.

I’m learning, though — slowly — that I don’t have to. No one does.

A few months ago, the counselor I work with did a spontaneous exercise with me. She held up a pretend chocolate ice cream cone in one hand and a pretend vanilla ice cream cone in the other. “Pick one,” she said.

“Is this some kind of trick?” I asked. Sad, but true.

“Nope,” she replied. “Pick one.”



[Pause to think (and to see if I could pinpoint the trick she’d denied … no luck).]

“Because vanilla is so blah and chocolate is richer,” I said.

“Wrong,” she replied. “Pick again.”

[Pause for initial frustration to set in.]

“I thought you said this wasn’t a trick!”

“It isn’t. Pick again.”

“Chocolate,” I said.


“Because I like it better than vanilla?”

“Is that a question or a statement?”

“Because I like it better than vanilla.”

“Closer,” she replied, “but still wrong. Pick again.”


I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do. I kept picking chocolate and coming up with a litany of reasons for my choice. “Wrong. Pick again,” she patiently repeated.

Finally, in desperation, I picked chocolate yet again and, when she asked why for the fifty-seventh time, I blurted out: “Because I just want it, that’s why!”

“Right!” she (finally) said.

[Pause for confusion to set in.]

“Pete,” she continued, “you don’t have to justify yourself. You can pick chocolate because you want chocolate. That’s enough. There doesn’t need to be any further explanation.”

[Pause for realization to set in.]

[More pausing.]

[More pausing.]


[Light dawns.]



The same is true where my introversion is concerned, where anyone’s introversion is concerned: It doesn’t need to be defended, justified, explained, rationalized. It just needs to be. That’s enough.

Will I ever go up to my old colleague at the gym and say hey? I don’t know. I really don’t. It will almost certainly depend on my mood and my energy in the moment.

What I do know for sure is that I get to choose, we all get to choose. Really choose. And that whichever pathway I pick, I can just pick it. No defense necessary.