Yesterday, I wrote about how I was way too fatigued to keep a social engagement and yet I managed to write a lengthy post for my blog; how is that possible? In fact, I seem to be doing it again, even though I consider myself to be “taking a break”…so, if I have so much to say, and so much stamina to write it, why couldn’t I have just gone and done that face-to-face? Why does one feel so easy and the other completely out of the question?
In fact, I know my deep tiredness this week is exactly why I’ve turned to writing..because writing is my therapeutic outlet, whilst “chatting” is a physical pursuit, akin to going for a hike; you know you should do it, and you tell yourself you might even enjoy it (could go either way…), but it takes a whole other level of stamina. I’ve just read this relatable observation from a career advisor and blogger who happens to be introverted (more on the link to introversion below) “An introvert feels like he’s on stage when he has to talk at extended lengths of time. An extravert doesn’t want to leave the stage”. He continues “The act of speaking is not problematic for the introvert, it’s sustaining the conversations over a long period of time that drains their batteries.” And then some!
In fact, over the 15 years I have been at home with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and a mish-mash of other health conditions and only become more defined by my introversion, I’ve churned out more writing than at any other time of my life…oodles of writing…while my face-to-face contact has only grown smaller, rarer and ever-more challenging. It’s never really felt like a retrograde step (more a case of becoming more like myself, no more pretence), but its certainly caught my attention.
I’m pretty confident I’m not alone in this paradox of finding writing easy and conversation hard (when the majority would say otherwise) or I wouldn’t be bothering to write this post. Its a “thing” that some of us (I’m guessing about 30% in line with introversion) prefer to engage via the writen word. Perhaps that number is growing, as more and more people turn to text rather than phone calls, or because lockdown caused so many of us to stop and think about what we really prefer, rather than trying so hard to fit in.
The connection with introversion is a known thing…and perhaps more of us are admitting to our hidden introversion since the pandemic flagged up preferences we didn’t even know we had. As so many people paused to review their options about where they really prefer to work (home or office, when perhaps they never even considered that they had a choice before) or otherwise divide up their time between being socially engaged or in their own zone, I suspect a great many more began to self-identify as introverts…I know at least a couple of people who are saying so.
Whereas I have pretty-much always known I am an introvert, which is as long as the concept was known to me. Did this always correspond with the way I prefered to engage? Well, as a child I was a pretty wordy writer, from the moment I could hold a pen. I was that painfully shy girl who would fill an entire exercise book once a week doing her story-writing homework, prefering to “speak” to her class-peers via her teacher reading parts out in class (as one particular teacher often did). That all changed at secondary school, where the teachers had no more patience with shyness and I was made to read out my own stories to the class (how to cut short a budding writing “career”) but my journals made better friends than most of my peers for a lot of years and I was an epic writer of letters to my uni friends (here comes another brick through the door…must be from Helen). The internet has been such a gift!
I have always found it much easier to write fluently than to talk for any length of time. That’s not to say I don’t speak with occasional eloquence, passion or even great humour when the circumstances are just right (wit is my go-to around other people I don’t know that well; but even that sometimes feels like I’m drafting a comedy script). However, I do tend to get extremely fatigued from talking much, and increasingly so as I get older, especially if I’m not used to it or if the conversation goes on for over an hour, which seems to be about my cut-off point these days, unless I’m with an exceptional friend who allows me to wind up and wind down with recovery pauses in between. Yet I can manage to bash out a several thousand word blog, even when I’m experiencing a flare-up of chronic fatigue and/or pain and am virtually horizontal on the sofa…yet the words just keep on coming, falling into place with next to no effort, even when I’m half asleep. Sometimes, I even have to get up in the night, perch on the side of the bath, scribble by torchlight…
In fact, when that flare-up happens, I very-often turn to my writing as a useful distraction and an outlet for all the bottled-up thoughts and feelings that are tumbling around in my head. In written words, they all seem to fall into place, without effort. Writing can be as effective as, say, painting (my other distraction of choice) on days when I’m really uncomfortable in my own skin but not able to just lie there or go to sleep. It doesn’t even have to be about anything in particular, just the very process of writing, the easy flow from mind to fingers, is a healing balm.
When I come across just so many comments and articles describing how people really struggle to put words into writing, it bewilders me. I have to coach myself to have more patience, or not take it personally, when friends don’t want to reciprocate in kind…but a friend who loves to write back is the most delectable thing, filling me with all the joy, heart-expansion and deep fulfillment of meaningful connection that others must get to experience when they meet up over coffee. Now, I can be myself, in a way that I struggle with in the flesh. I almost need to filter potential friends with a question…how much do you like to chat by messenger or email; it would save a lot of time, misunderstanding and frustration.
Its not that I “hate” to meet up, in fact I love it with the right person (preferably one to one) but, since I got ill, I can’t manage it very often or at short-notice. I have to build up to it and I have to be feeling A1, not fatigued or in pain or in any way flustered. If all the signs are pointing the right way then great, but it makes for a very stilted friendship if we have to wait for the perfect conditions, whereas writen communication just keeps going over the bumps, no problems.
Don’t even get me started about phone or zoom calls; I just don’t respond to the phone ringing unless it is prescheduled and tend to text or email people back. My sister is just the same, though she loves to meet over coffee with a wide group of friends (one at a time), she won’t talk on the phone or zoom and, like me, she really loves to text.
This stark preference for written communication over speaking, even as a preferred mode for conducting friendships, is a well-known trait of introversion. In fact, introverts often happen to be pretty talented writers, with plenty to say (one of the most famous is J K Rowling). We introverts do tend to prefer texting and emailing over too many in-person meetings, especially when it comes to meeting more than one person at a time or being put on the spot (I read that many of us will ignore the phone ringing and reply by text, as I just described, see “Why Introverts Absolutely Loathe Talking on the Phone” – Introvert, Dear).
This could be, in part, because writing gives us the time to process our answers and find the right words to say what we really want to, without any social pressure to get it right first time or with everybody’s eyes on us. What we offer is quite often an extremely well-considered and valuable contribution to the discussion, but we do far better when we have the time to process, review and edit our thoughts and our delivery.
Above all, we find it so much easier to write than to chatter in that freeform way that defines the average female conversation, making one skill and the other like chalk-and-cheese to each other. I have often found myself worrying that people who have got to know me though the written word would find me far less-than entertaining in the flesh because my ability to discuss verbally is extremely variable and also dependent on how I am feeling at the time, whereas my writer communication is far more consistent. They may have got used to me being able to discuss a wide expanse of topics in the most coherent yet creative form, stringing threads of ideas together like I’m weaving a tapesty, yet when we meet I might be so different to that as to have them thinking I had someone else ghost-write all my messages. Not because I lack enough to say but because I can’t process it into spoken language at the speed I think it (more on the challenges of weaving complex ideas together, verbally, below).
My conversational skills have also taken a massive hit, as I mentioned, since I have had chronic fatigue and other health issues because, when I am fatigued, the ability to chat or even drag my voice out of the monotone groove it sometimes falls into when I am physically struggling can be more fatiguing than just about any other kind of physical exertion, taking just about everything I have. If I am expected to talk whist walking or standing, it can pretty much wipe the floor with me, which is the kiss of death for outings that involve “catching up” on a walk, in town or in an art gallery. Yet, if you happen to catch me on the right day, on the right topic, and when I am not having to overdo it or in pain, even better if I can sit down and am warm, I can talk the hind leg off several donkeys. What this lacks is consistency, which means I don’t trust or lean into my ability to chat…because I simply can’t predict that I can (and when I can’t, I have no choice but to cancel, as per my earlier blog). This trip-factor made exhibition openings a real challenge, back in the days when I was expected to meet and greet on the first night my art was shown off in a show. Some of these shows went well and you couldn’t put a cork in me but there was at least one that I felt I couldn’t attend at the last moment and it led to me pulling out of such commitments as the CFS took over.
Yet when it comes to writing, I can pretty much do that on any day of the week in whatever state I am in as it comes more naturally than anything else. Apparently, the reason for this is that writing uses different pathways in the brain to speaking. Those “written word” pathways just seem to be rather better “oiled” for introverts than their vocal ones so I’m guessing that’s my foible.
It’s also to do with the way we think. I suspect many introverts that excel at writing tend to think at many levels at once, as per orthogonal thinking (as I blogged about before) which is like having ideas in the shape of a cloud map, rather than a train track. My mind feels something akin to a search engine and is triggered off down different pathways by various nudges that cross-reference with a variety of other things, simultaneously. So it is associative, not linear, which does not translate all that well to conversation though, somehow, I can use it to write well (partly because I can go back and edit or move blocks around). Thinking several thoughts at once, rather than in a linear fashion, can make you into a genius at discovering fascinating patterns and making connections that others miss but it also makes this particular introvert sound garbled, or even rude, at times because of the way I have to blurt out whatever unpolished thought I happen to have, the very moment I think of it, in case I lose it by the time the next thought comes in. Doing this with another person can sound like you are over-talking or not paying attention; but its just the way my brain happens to process and if I stop it, I find I have nothing much to say at all!
In fact, my brain is in perpetual overdrive, so either I have to speak as it comes (which can be alarming to some audiences) or I have to dial myself back so much I become like a shadow of my real self. Small-talk is my anathema; so, I can do it for short periods, as long as I am with people I am so comfortable with that I can inject some banterous humour or irreverent wit into the mix to brighten things up. However, if I have to make terribly polite or highly conventional small-talk, without the sparks of humour, its as though my head starts to yowl!
Being a visual thinker (60-65% of the population) is also a factor when it comes to preferring the written word and I would count myself as one of those, although I was thrown for a long time by the fact I don’t tend to think in “videos” or photo realistic storyboards that I could clealy describe to you; its more like I think everything through as though I am writing a piece, to the point I sometimes feel like I’m structuring my thoughts into paragraphs or phrases that I can kind-of see taking form. This is one of the reasons writing can feel like offloading too many thoughts, to clear my head, because its as though I am, otherwise, carrying them all around as pre-made sentences (like a warehouse bursting full of flatpack furniture that’s been made up long before its needed, taking up all the space). I have to urgently search for a piece of paper or get to my laptop to put them all down before I lose what I made, or my mind becomes desperately overcrowded.
For a long time, I felt this indicated that I think verbally but I’ve now come to understand that “seeing” my thoughts as writing is in fact a visual modality (I just read about a woman with visual thinking who even thinks her thoughts in different fonts!). When I visualise a blog, its somewhat like visualising a map working its way through a tangled maze of information, seeking coherence. I am the one that I gets to make the map, as though I am an explorer-cartographer on the wild frontiers of information relating to me (the subjective is where I do all my life-exploration and deep spiritual work). There’s a stange kick that I get as I structure the piece, allowing certain parts of it to remain a little wild and abstract whilst inviting a reader to join me in my quest for coherence. I can’t be bothered with sub headings or images, all they do is encourage people to skim read or jump to the headlines. I really want them to join me in the full quest or not bother, its all the same to me as I write it all down for myself. If I need to return to it later, I have a map of sorts that will intersect with all the other maps (blogs, journal entries, copious notes) with which I litter my life.
This visual bent is consistent with the fact I frequently use metaphor, or effortlessly talk about doors and passageways, ceilings and basements when I describe concepts, using my hands to draw out certain shapes as I talk, or when I receive a therapy treatment I can easily translate pain and other sensations into colours or other descriptors such as “ball of fire”, “glob of sludge” etc (this works well with modalitys such as BodyTalk, where you are encouraged to visualise that way, saying it outloud, while they do some hands-on bodywork to release the issue). Better still, if you can harness this ability yourself, it can be such a powerful means of isolating a physical problem or imagining healing taking place; because, through imagery, sensations in the body get to talk to you, direct, to impart important information for healing that the logical-linear brain might otherwise struggle to access.
My inner landscape can often seem like a highly complex architectural structure (never the same one) within which I navigate my emotional experiences. I know another visual thinker who is training to become an architect; what a gift, and I can so see the link as she works at positively directing emotional states via the structures that she envisions people living and working in, externalising all that she has learned for herself. Temple Grandin (a prominent engineer and self-advocate with autism, author of “Thinking in Pictures”, 1995) famously used her visual thinking abilities to devise more humane farm structures for animals by exploring first-hand how those animals experience their surroundings through their senses and striving to make them better. These traits are all clues of having visual thinking, which is quite different to verbal thinking, lending itself to more diverse modes of communication than just speech (could be through art or design, composing, aromotherapy, flower arranging, acts of kindness, etc…all of these can be used to coherently convey abstract concepts, without the need for actual conversation).
Yet we all need to talk to one another sometimes; it can’t all be done through senses, signs and symbols. So, if you happen to be wired visually, writing might be your preferred method, over making conversation, because of the delay involved in translating a more abstract concept into a socially acceptable or relatable statement “on the hoof”. This isn’t because visual thinking is anything “less than” verbal thinking; it’s just a different medium, the same as art is different to accountancy. And while an artist gets to work at a picture for a length of time, and then make tweaks, before presenting it to the world, speaking can feel like having to paint a masterpiece very quickly and on demand, with an audience standing there watching over you!
Apparently, introverts also favour long-term memory over working memory (according to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage), which makes us good at building concepts but not so spontaneous at juggling small-talk in a social setting or brain storming in a meeting, where short-term memory abilites are an advantage. “Researchers hypothesized that extroverts would perform better in the short-term memory task, because of their predisposition to be externally-focused. Generally, extroverts tend to be more impulsive, leading them to act quicker and perform faster” (Kim, J., Lee, A., & Ryu, H. (2013) as referenced in this study). Inevitably, it takes longer to call upon long-term memory, when you need it as backup for a conversation, than it does to draw on short-term or working memory, if that happens to be your stronger ability. Like the library trolly coming up from the vaults carrying the particular “book” you requested to back up something you were about to say, it has the habit of turning up long after the conversation is over and everyone else has gone home. So, how many times have I gone home to spend the evening playing through what I would really have liked to say but wasn’t quick enough…
I also know I rely on experiencing a variety of sensory associations to trigger off my thought patterns via all kinds of data stored in my long-term memory (they are like highly-associative search terms across the “internet” of my mind); so whether this trigger is a scent or a colour, a particular piece of music, the weather, that woman’s face, the feeling of autumn leaves under my feet, all kinds of random things juxtaposed in a certain way, their combination sends me off in pursuit of a particular thought pattern, but I can’t plan for it. However, if I get to play with it for long enough without interuption, this sometimes delivers the kind of coherence that leads to meaningful ideas that I can then try to convey in writing. This is called associative thinking, as described here by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“: “When one node in the network is activated, say by seeing a word or image, it automatically activates its surrounding nodes, rippling outward like a pebble thrown in water”. Yes!
If it can be harnessed, associative memory is a powerhouse of creativity…and some of us are simply born this way, ready to go.
However, when in conversation, its very hard to stay aware of sensory prompts outside of “the situation” of sitting there engaged with another person, trying to give them your full attention (and not miss anything or risk being considered rude and distracted). Its as though the social activity itself now dominates the room, growing bigger and more important than its actual content (how extroverted interaction seems to this introvert) whereas, to me, getting together is simply a potential medium for something far deeper, more important, harder to pin down to come forth between two people and that takes opening to abstraction, without so much focus upon etiquette. Doing it any other way is like making the idea of Christmas, as some sort of “big party” excuse, more important than the very feelings it is meant to represent and foster…an inside-out kind of world, to me.
It is possible to get into the more hallowed territory of my deeper thinking preference when I am with a really close friend, where we can really let our ideas fly together (and I can come down off my guard…). I’ve also done it under the influence of alcohol, etc. (but then what you gain in terms of an abstract flow of ideas you quickly lose in terms of coherence; one of the reasons I have come to loathe getting drunk or high). If you study the average conversation between people, it is built on a rapid flow of short-term memory prompts as each person reacts to whatever the other person just said plus all their unspoken body language and other cues, like a multi-player tennis match passing the ball back and forth. This requires a very different skillset to settling down into your long-term memory associations, throwing that pebble into the pool, ready for a deep dive into abstraction, where all the most profound information lies. To me, most conversations feel only surface deep and it frustrates me, not least because I struggle to join in, plus the motivation to do so is minimal.
In my own case, I can clearly see how my Asperger traits come in to this picture of occasional verbal clumsiness and frequent social exhaustion, dotted and dashed with occassional surprise moments of eloquence or wit if I happen to feel more engaged with a particular person in conversation. I certainly recognise it in the form of my orthogonal thinking and visual thinking traits (there is a known connection with autism). Then, issues with speed or challenges processing complex thoughts into spoken words is certainly an autistic trait. “Virtually everyone with autism has difficulty with spoken language. Some have no use of spoken language at all, while most can use spoken language but find it difficult to translate spoken words into meaning at high speed” (Visual Thinking and Autism, Verywell).
In order to conduct “social” conversation, I have to try and adhere to all the various rules of politeness and reciprocation that come far less naturally to me (especially now I go out less than ever in my life), all of which takes up so much of my thinking that I lose the thread of any bright ideas that might have been about to occur to me. I found face-to-face engagement much easier in my youth because I really practiced it a lot and did my utmost to become adept at it (though I traded off huge portions of myself in the process). These days, I really notice how fatiguing it is to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language, all of which consume a lot of energy, leaving me so deeply fatigued I am often forced to go into my shell for hours, even days, after a prolongued period of face-to-face contact.
I suddenly realise, this is the very thing at the core of my current deep-fatigue. For exactly 8 weeks as of today, I have engaged in considerably more social engagement, with far more people (all of the broader family), than I had for the previous two years put together (during which time I didn’t spend time with anyone outside of my immediate family of two) and it begins all over again in just a few days, with quite a busy time coming up. Seems that, in the very week I was meant to see a friend for the first time in ages, my conversation faculty broke down and I’m sat here with intense social fatigue!
So what did I turn to for solace? Of course, my writing…not because I’m so desperate to be heard but because it helps me to process and find myself. Really not so very selfish; after all that’s exactly why more sociable, extroverted, people go out to meet others!
Is social fatigue a thing? It would appear so, and if you are an introvert, highly sensative, a visual thinker or possibly autistic, it doesn’t take as much as for the next person to get there. For me, this happens all the quicker when I’m with people that I don’t find engaging or relaxing to be around. Any so-called genius or witty repartee is lost as a result of the considerable effort it takes to follow all the rather alien, and out of practice, conversational etiquette, so I quickly become dull-sounding and unenthused unless I’m with someone who both sparks and relaxes me enough to “be myself”. This is far more likely to happen when I am one-to-one with someone I genuinely like and have things in common with whereas, when I write , I can invent my own audience (or, I am already talking to a close friend) and off I go, no stopping me.
Of course, it does happen sometimes that I “click” with someone the moment I meet them; in fact it happened just the other day at an artists’ open studio. This other artist and I hit-it-off so much we were both chatting away like old friends for so long my husband’s back almost gave way from standing there waiting for me. All of my own challenges dissolved away in the presence of such highly animated conversation and I lost all track of the time because I was truly relishing the opportunity to connect with another person face-to-face, but its still the rarity, in my experience, that all my verbal pistons start firing so smoothly. Not being able to predict that they will does add an overlay of social anxiety because what if it doesn’t happen, or what if the person I get on with invites their other friends over, meaning they invariably drop me and warm to those other people that are far more straightforward to talk to, leaving me languishing behind (as always seems to happen in a group)? Its been there all my life, that inevitable fear of conversation being such a weak area for me, always the oddity, compared to the majority with their small-talk. Irony is, when I am socially anxious I sometimes ramble to hide my awkwardness, meaning I say too much and regret it all later.
So when it goes well face-to-face its great, but with writing I just know I will get there, and that I can be completely myself, getting my words out just the way I want to, and that it won’t fatigue me the same way talking does, which is what makes it my preferred method of communication, my outlet, my therapy and so much more besides.
At the end of the day, we are all wired differently; and there needs to be far less stigma around these preferences since they are just as valid, bringing forth their own gifts. These days, I prefer to remain curious about my own preferences, ever-eager to see where they lead rather than making them wrong or trying to coach myself out of them. I really hope the same goes for how we raise our kids, appreciating that if they are not so strong in one area then they likely more than compensate in another. In our new era of inclusiveness, here is just another thing for inclusion in the mix of all that it takes to make up the whole of humanity. My hope is that more and more writing-preferers, and other kinds of communicators, start to embrace their personal gift, to stand their ground and not waste years trying to be other than how they truly are, or more like other people, so that they can dive deeply into themselves and bring forth the fullness of who they really are to the world.