The Trouble with Old People

Trouble With Old People | Social Skills for Introverts

by Steve Van Auken

Americans believe that if you have something to say, you should, by God, say it. Don’t hem-haw around. Don’t mumble or brood. Show everyone the importance of what you have to say by talking louder and longer than everyone else. Even if what you have to say is that you are thinking about cutting your toe-nails. The content doesn’t matter. It’s the number of words you put into saying it.

This works out well for people, young or old, who are extroverts by nature, but not so well for us introverts.

Introverts have trouble entering conversations. We politely wait for the other person to finish. This is nice in theory. In practice, it is a prescription for silence. So many people feel the need to fill the air with words. They have learned to take breaths while continuing to talk. The introvert waits for the extrovert to get around to saying, “But enough about my views.  What do you think?”

If you are an introvert and the waiting strategy has ever worked for you, write a full description of the event and mail it care of this magazine. We will dedicate our next issue to your amazing experience.

When we do get into the conversation, introverts aren’t good at staying there. This has nothing to do with the importance of what we say. It’s a matter of style. Even an introvert as substantial as Abraham Lincoln no doubt had this problem.

“Mr. President, it’s been a long time since you came in for a haircut. Same as usual? Just enough off the ears so the big hat fits? Right. Say, you remember I was telling you last time about the squirrels in my attic. We tried everything. Now they’ve broken through the ceiling into the bedrooms. Squirrels strolling around at all hours. Puts a damper on a fellow’s marital life, if you get my drift. Our dog caught one, but another got into the pantry. But say, what’s new with you?”

“I finally got General McClellan to attack the Confederates.”

“That reminds me, my corns have really been attacking me lately. Want to see? No? Maybe later. It all started about a month ago when I bought this new pair of shoes…”

Rick Steves, the travel guide writer, says that extroverts have more fun. Celebrities are some of our favorite extroverts and we turn to them when we are in the mood for fun.  But it turns out that some of our biggest celebrities are actually deep introverts who have acquired some extrovertive skills. Madonna, for example, when not performing, loves to immerse herself in her stamp collection. Lady Gaga is said to be so shy that she purchased an abandoned fire tower in British Columbia and holes up there. Her agent recently had to hire a squad of ex-Navy Seals to track her and extricate her by helicopter to attend the pre-launch party for her new video. And Lil Wayne, once he leaves the stage, heads back to his beloved swamps of New Hampshire where he works alone developing new strains of cranberries.

Introverts can learn to adapt to social demands. But even an introvert who becomes an American hero may find himself a bit of a mystery within the dominant extrovertive culture.

“Good morning!  Mr. Neil Armstrong? This is Brandon. I’m calling on behalf of our Purdue alumni magazine. As you know, we’re coming up on your 50th class reunion. I’m sure this is as exciting for you as it is for us. I’m calling to find out what you have been doing since you graduated so we can share with all your classmates. Go ahead and tell me the top 10 things you want us to celebrate about you!”

“Well, I was in the Navy and now I’m retired. I like to go for hikes.”

“Right, right. And what would you say was your greatest accomplishment?”

“Well, it wasn’t just me, you know. A lot of people worked on it for a long time. So that I could be the first person to walk on the moon.”

“OK, good, I’m making a note. ‘Walked…on…moon.’ How many Purdue alumnae walked with you? Our readers like to hear about trips our graduates take together. Last year we sponsored two weeks on a canal boat in Holland.”

“No, no…it was just me.”

“I see. What about shoes?”

“Pardon me?”

“Do you have a picture of the shoes you wore when you took your walk? Were they in the school colors? We all wore matching tennis shoes in Holland.”

“No, you can’t wear sneakers on the moon. Just boots.”

“There was no one there but you? It sounds kind of lonely.”

“It didn’t seem that way to me. I took a picture of the Earth. Our own bright blue pebble in the vast emptiness of space.”

“Great, great. Nice talking to you. Hope to see you at the reunion dance, Mr. Armstrong! This year our theme is ‘Star Wars.’  Say, you could wear your moon costume!” 

For the introvert who wants an equal share in the conversation, the only winning strategy is boldness. We must stop worrying about taking turns or boring others. Do others worry about boring us? On the evidence, they do not. We introverts need to learn to pull up our socks, inject ourselves into the conversation and refuse to be pushed out.

“So that’s how my cousin and I make our lager beer. But when we make our porter or IPA or any of the others we do it differently. The recipes are really complicated. For example, our porter recipe…”

“I raked the leaves yesterday.”

“Right. When we make porter, it’s really important to have a cool place to store…”

“I raked them into a big pile. Then I ran and jumped in them.”

“And… and… we had a hard time finding just the right storage place until we went online and what we found out is…”

“My dog jumped in too. Afterward I had to give him a bath. He had some slugs on him. You know, the things that look like snails but they don’t have a shell. I don’t know why but you find them in leaves. Now I’ll tell you how I decided which rake is the best for the kind of leaves I have. I’ve been reading about it in ‘House and Yard Quarterly.’”

“You know, you used to be a much better conversationalist.”

Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.