My mother-in-law has a gift. She can talk to anyone.
I once went to an estate sale with my mother-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law. We had just stepped inside the front door when my mother-in-law paused and smiled at another woman also walking in the door. That woman smiled back, and the two began to talk. I wandered off to look at other things throughout the house, particularly some quilts.
Doing a “Mudder”
When I returned to the front hall, bulky quilt in hand, I found my mother-in-law still standing in the front hall and still talking to the same woman. Must be a former neighbor, I thought. Or a friend of a friend. Maybe the owner of the house?
No. These two women had never met each other.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve watched my mother-in-law (we call her Mudder) strike up a conversation with a stranger. At a store. At a concert. In an elevator. On a walk around the block. My husband and I have taken to calling this ability “doing a Mudder.” And we both deeply admire Mudder’s ability to exercise what some might call a gift of gab.
My mother-in-law naturally connects with people, and that connection appears to energize her. Many people would categorize her as an extrovert. In her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain writes, “Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.”
Worn Out by People
But what if you don’t “enjoy the extra bang that comes from . . . meeting new people”? What if meeting new people requires great effort? What if interacting with people, especially making small talk, utterly wears you out instead of energizing you as it does my mother-in-law?
Truthfully, I would rather stay home and read (or write) a book in my cozy office, but I also know I can’t make real friends, face-to-face friends, that way. And I know that God calls me to connect, to share His love with people.
So how do we introverts learn to practice approachability—friendliness, agreeableness, congeniality, affability—in our own quiet, thoughtful sort of way? We can’t make friends unless we exhibit at least some degree of friendliness (approachability).
Communicate Approachability without Saying Anything
After watching my mother-in-law connect so easily with other people, I realized that I could and should learn from her. I do not want to try to become an extrovert or even learn to pretend to function as one, but I do so want to learn how to connect with others in my own quiet, thoughtful way.
Admire and adapt.
That has become my motto as I think and watch and read and pray about connecting as an introvert. What techniques do I admire in others, including extroverts, and how can I adapt those techniques for my quiet soul?
I’ve begun to learn that I can always lean in to listen well, smile, and nod my head. None of that actually requires me to speak. Perfect for an introvert!
Leaning into a conversation says, I want to hear your words more clearly. They sound interesting. Don’t we all appreciate someone responding to us with interest?
Several years ago, I also started the rather intimidating practice of making eye contact with others in stores or out on walks. I usually did not talk. Just smiled.
One winter Saturday morning I dashed to a store just before closing time. I walked toward the register to discover a line and one clerk. Ugh!
I smiled at the woman to my right. She smiled back and said, “You go ahead of me. Really, it is fine.”
“That is so nice of you! Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m actually enjoying the wait.”
“Thank you!” I smiled and continued to stand near her. We made eye contact a few more times and exchanged a few more smiles. I resisted taking my phone out of my pocket. She took a step toward me. And then she started to talk about her recent caregiving responsibilities and her weariness.
“I’m enjoying the peace of standing here waiting. I never thought I would say that. And I can’t believe I’m telling you all of this.”
Apparently, I had communicated approachability. I hadn’t said much, but I did make eye contact multiple times. And I resisted the temptation to bury my head in my phone.
As challenging as that encounter felt for my quiet soul, I knew that I had given this woman a gift that morning. I had seen her and heard her. I had reminded her, mostly by listening and smiling, that she mattered.
And that made me smile.
Why Make So Much Effort to Reach for People?
I have always loved a particular story in the New Testament (John 4) because it shows Jesus reaching across cultural barriers to connect with a woman. He didn’t pay attention to the prevailing cultural winds or even the current religious teachings of Jewish superiority. Instead, he looked this woman (not a Jew) in the eye, maybe smiled, and engaged her in conversation—something the people she encountered on a daily basis seemed reluctant to do.
The story depicts Jesus traveling from Judea north to Galilee. He could have taken several routes, but He chose one that took Him through a country called Samaria, a place the religious leaders of the time avoided. They did not like any association with the Samaritans, a mixed race, who had built their own temple and veered from the standard religious practices of the day.
By noon Jesus had arrived at the village of Sychar, no doubt hot, thirsty, and covered with dust. He approached a well and noticed a woman there. Most of the women in the area went to the well in the morning and again in the evening and no doubt made time to catch up with each other as they drew water for their households. But this woman went to the well at noon. Did she want to avoid gossiping tongues who knew about her multiple divorces? Did she just want some introvert time? Did she hope for invisibility from other townspeople?
At the well Jesus did something religious leaders forbade: He approached a strange woman in public and spoke to her. In fact, he asked her for a drink of water: “The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, ‘How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’ (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)” (John 4:9 MSG). The conversation continued, and Jesus gently probed this woman’s pain and then offered her healing, calling it “living water”: “Jesus answered, ‘If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water’” (John 4:10 MSG).
Clearly, Jesus saw this woman, even though she might have wished for invisibility. Jesus did not view her as an irritation to avoid but rather as a woman of value with an aching heart. He saw her, talked to her, and treated her with dignity.
What a great example for us as we seek to connect with others in our culturally diverse world in a quiet, thoughtful sort of way.
If Jesus had obeyed the cultural dictates of His day, this woman would never have heard the good news of the living water.
And that compels and challenges me, even as an introvert, to work at connecting with others despite perceived differences of race and culture. I want to live as Jesus lived and speak His words of healing into other people’s lives.
I want to live connected.
Adapted from Living Connected: An Introvert’s Guide to Friendship, chapter 3