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A man in an airport recently expressed surprise when I gave him the name of my blog. “You consider yourself an introvert?” he asked. “But you’re sitting here at a bar, talking with total strangers. That’s not very introverted.”

True, I said, and then explained that for me, introversion means, among other things, that I am someone who needs time alone (or with a very select few) to recharge. I process things internally, have entire conversations and worlds inside my mind, and usually keep those thoughts and ideas to myself, unless I’m specifically asked to share them.

But there are exceptions. I am curious about people, and I really like hearing the details of others’ lives, along with the perspectives that are different from my own. There are so many stories in the world, so many experiences that I have never even considered. Learning about those expands not only my own possibilities, but also my compassion for the ways in which people walk through life.

Recently, I remembered another – trickier – way in which I go against the introverted grain. At dinner, one of my relatives said something mean-spirited and small-minded about a specific group of people. Without going into details, she said something that I think is ignorant to the point of being dangerous, as it reflected an outdated, erroneous, and powerful belief that used to hurt a lot of people, and still could.

I reacted without thinking, calling out her name in an attempt to get her to stop talking. Maybe that’s why she said it – to get a reaction from someone – but before I was even fully aware that I had spoken, I knew I wanted to stop the spread of information that was factually incorrect, and that marginalized and dismissed an entire population. I didn’t take it farther, though, knowing that a conversation on the subject was unlikely to change anything, or be productive.

My reaction the other night was incomplete, lacking substance, and I have been thinking about it since then. I’ve never known how to handle these situations well, and still need to grow in this way. I don’t mean a situation in which I have a different opinion than someone else; I’m talking about the times when I’ve heard something prejudiced, racist, sexist, or cruel. On paper, the answer is obvious: speak up. Say something. Take the risk, and the time, to engage in an open, nonconfrontational dialogue built on curiosity and respect.

In life, though, it’s not that simple, especially when there are others around. Sometimes, when I say something, I know it’s not going to change anything and I feel helpless. In choosing to not engage in a conversation because of that, though, I worry that I am also becoming part of this silent, powerful majority. I can’t stand the thought of that.

Yet even when I do speak up, I inevitably return to my introverted self, silently turning the situation around in my mind, trying to figure it out: did I say something wrong, could I have spoken with more clarity, should I have not said anything at all? I yearn to be someone who is both approachable and who stands up for others. Part of what makes it difficult, I think, is that as an introvert, I tend towards an evaluation of myself and of my actions that means that I can’t simply speak up – or not speak up – and let it go. Instead, I think about it, think through it, long after the moment has passed. I want to know how this one situation fits into everything else: who I am, how the world works, and where I need to evolve in my own thinking.

I don’t know that the question of whether or not to say anything – or how to best say it – would be any easier to answer as an extrovert, but I think that I would be more likely to let it go once I’d said my peace. From what I understand, extroverts often think through a position by talking through it, getting their energy from being around others in a way that helps them clarify how they feel. It’s not that there isn’t the same kind of evaluation, I don’t think; instead, maybe it’s just that it’s easier for others to see that process in action, in real time.

For me, I’d like to find the ways to move through such moments with integrity, but also with kindness and patience. I think that’s why I’m writing this blog on this topic right now, when I had planned a different post. I’d like ideas on when to speak up, when to hold my tongue, and how to approach all of it well.

In short, what do you do in moments like this? My introverted self is ready to listen. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it until I hear from you (and far beyond that point, too).

 

One comment on “Introverted responsibility

  1. Joanna says:

    Tough call. I usually don’t say anything but try to understand that person’s viewpoint as a result of their upbringing or environment. People don’t appreciate being corrected in public. Perhaps you could gently ask why they feel that that way of speaking is appropriate in a private conversation? Just an idea…that may not be possible either – especially if they’re older.

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