Talking can be hard for introverts. Get us in just the right setting and you might have trouble making us shut up, but in most everyday conversations we struggle to come up with anything to talk about. As I wrote about last week, many introverts struggle to talk about personal things. Beyond that, we struggle with knowing what to talk about at all.
We often assume most people don’t want to hear about the things we care about. We think it sounds boring to answer, “What did you do last weekend?” by saying “Stayed home with my cat and watched Netflix.” Or we worry that we sound uninteresting if we answer, “What do you like to do?” with “Read, contemplate life, hide in a blanket fort … you know, exciting stuff like that.”
The Kind Of Talking We Don’t Like
About 50% of the population is introverted so there’s actually a good chance of you finding other people who think what you enjoy is perfectly normal because they also enjoy similar things. But for those of us in the United States, and other cultures that tend to have more “extroverted” values, we might still feel pressure to not be “weird” and stick with “normal” topics of conversation. Read more →
The study is 20 years old, but I first became aware of it last week. In two days, I saw two different articles talking about falling in love and Dr. Arthur Aron’s “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” (As an interesting side-note, this Dr. Aron is married to Dr. Elaine Aron, who we’ve talked about in connection to her research on Highly Sensitive Persons [HSPs].)
Aron’s study wasn’t actually intended to explore the science of falling in love — it was designed to study closeness and included both men-women and woman-woman pairs (because the sample group, a psychology class, was 70% women). The couples who fell in love were an unintended side-effect. Mandy Len Catron’s recent article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” which called attention back to this study, demonstrates that the principles Aron used for studying accelerated intimacy between strangers can be applied to romantic relationships.
It’s a fascinating idea, made even more fascinating when you read his published research paper (what can I say? I’m a nerd) and find out about some of his other results. Is there a difference in closeness for introverts and extroverts? Can you truly become close to someone in less than an hour? What is it that effectively increases closeness?
Introverts and Extroverts
One thing I found fascinating about this study, which wasn’t brought out in any of the other articles I read, was Dr. Aron’s observations on the role introversion and extroversion played. In Study 3, Dr. Aron had the participants take a Myers-Briggs test, then used those results to create extrovert-extrovert, extrovert-introvert, and introvert-introvert pairs. Some of the pairs were told the experiment’s goal was to get close to the person you were paired with, and the others were told the study was about “dyadic interaction” and their job was simply to work through the questions.
Extroverts reported closeness in all cases, but introverts only reported closeness when they were told that closeness was a goal. Dr. Aron says, “these data shed doubt on the view that introverts are less social because they are less skilled at getting close. Indeed, when getting close is made an explicit task, introverts became as close as extraverts.” When introverts want to get close to someone, we’re just as capable of socializing with them as extroverts.
Is It Real?
The experiment succeeded in producing a feeling of closeness between two people, but is that closeness as real as a relationship that develops over time? Of the 58 people who completed follow-up questionnaires, 57% had a least one more conversation with their study partner, 35% got together to do something, and 37% started sitting together in class. One couple got married 6 months after the study.
So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.
In one of Dr. Aron’s tests, he paired individuals with shared interests, and individuals who shouldn’t have gotten along well based on their different responses to a questionnaire. He also conducted tests where pairs were assigned without filling out pre-tests to determine whether or not they were compatible. In all cases, participants reported similar levels of closeness. That indicates we can rapidly feel close with just about anyone, but on the long-term this closeness might not last because other considerations (like whether or not you share important values) will eventually come up.
Small Talk’s Not Enough
One thing Aron’s research found was that small-talk doesn’t do anything to bring people closer together (which I’m sure many of us have suspected for years). Talking about things people had done, what they liked and disliked, or other people they knew did not produce closeness between the two study participants. Here are some examples of the small-talk prompts used in his study:
If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?
Do you like to get up early or stay up late? Is there anything funny that has resulted from this?
What is the last concert you saw? How many of that band’s albums do you own? Had you seen them before? Where?
In contrast, the types of questions which did draw people closer together focused on how they feel about the way they live their lives, why they think the way they do, and what helps them connect with other people. Here are a few examples, and you can read the full list of closeness-generating questions at the end of his published research paper (which I linked in the intro), or by clicking this link.
What would constitute a perfect day for you?
Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
Maybe there is a reason people devote so much time to small talk, which we introverts find so frustrating because we crave deep conversations. If we were having deep conversations with everyone, though, we’d feel very close to a lot more people. Maybe small talk protects us in a way, though it can also hinder genuine conversation.
Now that I’ve read about this research, part of me would really like to try it out and part of me thinks it sounds scary. I always thought that love is a choice, but there’s a part of me that feels like falling in love should just happen, then once you commit to the relationship you choose to keep loving each other. But Dr. Aron’s research indicates that you can choose who you become close to in the first place, and you can reach a level of closeness in less than an hour that approaches closeness you feel for people you’ve known many years. I think I’d be rather picky about who I went through these questions with, but it might be a great way to let yourself be vulnerable and open up possibilities in a relationship.
This week, I was reading someone’s comments on a young lady’s question about her increasingly physical relationship with her boyfriend when I ran into a phrase that always makes me twitch. The commenter suggested breaking up with the boyfriend immediately, then said, “Do not get attached to any boy until you are ready to have a serious relationship.”
Now, that might be good advice in this specific case (since the girl was 16 and had only been dating the guy for 3 months). But in Christian circles, the idea of not getting attached to anyone until you’re ready to get married has been painted with a wide brush across a whole range of situations. It’s often treated as a sure solution to avoiding heartbreak and keeping yourself “pure” for God.
I first heard this advice in courtship circles, where young people are advised to avoid developing feelings for someone of the opposite sex and just be friends until they reach a point where they want to get married. Then, in theory, you can start courting one of these friends and explore the possibility of marriage with them. If you develop feelings for someone before you’re in a position where you could get married to them, then you’re doing something wrong.
Struggle then against yourself as you would struggle against an enemy. Refuse to listen to a wish, to dwell even upon a possibility, that opens to your present idea of happiness. All that in the future may be realized probably hangs upon this conflict. … I only require from you what depends upon yourself, a steady and courageous warfare against the two dangerous undermines of your peace and of your fame, imprudence and impatience.
If not for the slightly out-dated language, you might think I quoted this from a courtship book written within in the past ten years or so. Actually, this quote is from the novel Camilla, first published in 1796 by Frances Burney. It’s part of the letter a pastor writes to his daughter, and is based on 18th century conduct books. Camilla’s father urges her not to let the man she is attracted to learn of her affection, because as a woman it is her duty to “retire to be chosen” by a man rather than seek out a man she loves. It doesn’t turn out quite like he planned, though, since Edgar is waiting for a sign that Camilla has feelings for him before he confesses his attraction to her. They spend much of the 913 pages of this novel miserable because neither one thinks they can properly and decently give the other a hint about how they feel.
There are oodles and oodles of songs and stories about heartbreak. Two people fall in love (or at least become quite attached to each other), have a relationship, then the relationship ends and one or both people end up with “broken hearts.” One thing this model presupposes is that you have to be in a relationship in order to get your heart broken. I don’t think that is the case. You can experience the feeling of heartbreak without actually having been in a relationship with someone.
This is one of the things the courtship movement got right — if you let yourself get attached to someone, there’s always the chance that they can hurt you, even if it’s simply by not returning your feelings. Courtship phrased this as “giving away pieces of your heart,” and said the reason it’s a bad idea is because then you don’t have as much heart left to give the person you actually do marry (which is really a ridiculous idea when you think about it; it’s not like we’re born with a set amount of love that we have to dole out sparingly, but problems with the courtship movement is a topic for another day).
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship, but even so I feel like my heart’s been broken a few times. It’s largely my own fault, too — I let myself get pretty close (emotionally) to a few guys I liked, and nothing came of the relationships. But would I have been better if I’d tried to keep myself from feeling anything at all, as Camilla’s father suggests? I really don’t think so.
Being open to the possibility of heartache is a prerequisite for entering any kind of relationship. The people who know us best and who we are closest to are those who are most capable of loving us, but they are also the people who could most easily hurt us. If we want to gather people around us to love and be loved by us, we have to take risks. We have to have the strength to be vulnerable.
To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.” ― Brené Brown, from “The Gifts of Imperfection”
Now, we should exercise a certain amount of caution when letting people get close to us. Some people simply cannot be trusted with your heart, but you usually don’t know who these people are until you start to get to know them. The key is to be vulnerable in stages. Don’t pour out all your thoughts, emotions, and self into someone you just met. You do, however, need to start connecting to people authentically if you want to develop relationships. Locking everyone out might keep them from breaking your heart, but you’ll end up lonely if you try that and loneliness can feel an awful lot like heartbreak.
Brene Brown has a great TED talk about this subject. She says that the people who have “a strong sense of love and belonging” see vulnerability as fundamental. They share a willingness “to say ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.” It’s not easy, and it’s not guaranteed to keep you safe, but I think it is better to risk getting close to people than fighting your human desire for connection “as you would struggle against an enemy.”