If introverts commonly experience a “word problem,” it might seem strange, then, that they’re also known as talented writers.
Many introverts are naturally gifted writers — so why do they clam up or draw a blank when speaking?
“Oh, I love podcasts!” I told the interviewer, who was recording me, unedited, as a guest on his podcast. “I listen to at least one every day.”
“That’s great!” the interviewer replied. “Which one is your favorite?”
“It’s uhh… ummm…” I listened to that podcast every flippin’ day! Why couldn’t I think of its name?!
“It’s something by NPR… uhhhhh… ” I couldn’t produce the name until I quickly googled it. By that time, the conversation had moved on and the point I was trying to make died a very awkward, very public death.
Story of my life as an introvert.
It wasn’t the first time I’d drawn a blank under pressure. Job interviews and first dates are notoriously the worst. “Tell me about yourself” often results in me temporarily forgetting everything I’ve ever done with my life.
Even when the stakes are low, like in a casual conversation with a friend, I often need a few beats to think before speaking — and it’s not unusual for thoughts to swirl in my head that I simply don’t have the language to express.
Why are words so hard for introverts? Let’s take a look at the science.
Humans Mostly Think In Pictures, Not Words
To be clear, everyone forgets words or gets tongue-tied at times, even the most extroverted among us, for all kinds of reasons ranging from simple distraction to pregnancy brain. But one big, universal reason may come down to some ancient wiring: A recent Harvard study found that our species tends to prefer visual thinking to verbal thinking.
If you’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as a “visual thinker,” they mean they think in pictures, not words — which is actually very common. According to the Harvard scientists, this tendency appears to be ingrained in the most primitive parts of our brains, probably because language is overall a “recent” development for humans (you know, we started assigning different grunts to objects a mere 100,000 years ago).
Of course, those images we “see” in our minds need translation, if we’re going to get our message across to other hominid-like creatures. This takes focus and energy, and can be an inefficient process. To put it mildly, our brains are still playing evolutionary catch-up.
But that’s not the whole story when it comes to introverts.
Why Does It Seem Worse for Introverts?
If you’re an introvert like me, sometimes words seem, well, extra hard. Your “word problem” may even get you labeled as “quiet” or “shy,” when in reality, you have plenty to say. Sometimes it reflects negatively on us because we come across like we don’t know what we’re talking about, even though many introverts love learning and often become subject-matter experts in their chosen fields.
In a society that values fast and frequent talkers, it can be tough being an introvert.
As I explain in my book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, our “word problem” may be connected to long-term memory. Although it’s retained for long periods of time (as the name suggests), information stored in long-term memory is mostly outside our conscious awareness. Sometimes the information is fairly easy to access (like what you ate for breakfast this morning), while other memories are difficult to recall (like what you ate for breakfast on this day two years ago).
Contrast this with working memory (sometimes called short-term memory), which is limited and retains information for mere seconds. Working memory puts information on the tip of your tongue. It’s easy to access, but you don’t hold onto it for long, unless you move it to long-term storage.
Here’s the kicker: Introverts tend to favor long-term memory over working memory, while extroverts do the opposite, according to Dr. Marti Olsen Laney in her 2002 book, The Introvert Advantage — and this can make speech challenging for us “quiet ones.”
How Long-Term Memory Challenges Introverts
How does our reliance on long-term memory complicate things for introverts? Well, pulling information out of long-term memory can be slow and tricky. You need the right association or “key” to unlock the memory you’re trying to retrieve.
For example, let’s say you were trying to remember your first date with your now-spouse. Walking by an Italian restaurant, you catch a whiff of olive oil, and BAM, the smell reminds you of the dish you ordered that night. In turn, this memory “unlocks” more information about the date — what she was wearing, what she said, and how you dropped a meatball on the floor and tried to hide it.
Although complex information can be stored for long periods of time in long-term memory, reaching into it might complicate things for introverts when they speak.
Anxiety Sucks and Makes It Harder to Think
Another reason speaking can be difficult for introverts has to do with anxiety. Not every introvert experiences social anxiety, and not all anxious people are introverts — even some very outgoing extroverts feel it! Nevertheless, it’s not uncommon for introverts to experience some level of stress and discomfort in social situations, whether they have a diagnosed anxiety disorder or not. After all, our comfort zones are back home, alone, with a good book or show.
Anyone who’s ever suffered from anxiety knows it’s mentally and emotionally draining. That mental drain can make it harder to think, focus, and recall information. During times of anxiety, big or small, the stress hormone cortisol is released, which can interfere with memory and concentration, among other things — which in turn, makes it harder to speak.
If you’re feeling anxious and struggling to speak, take a deep breath and cut yourself some slack.
Writing Uses Different Brain Pathways
If introverts commonly experience a “word problem,” it might seem strange, then, that they’re also known as talented writers. In fact, plenty of bestselling authors are self-professed introverts, from John Green to J.K. Rowling. Even if you’re an introvert who doesn’t write for a living, you probably prefer texting and emailing over big in-person meetings or talking on the phone.
How can this be? Again according to Laney, writing and speaking use different pathways in the brain. These writing pathways simply seem to flow more fluently and easily for introverts.
If, like me on the podcast, you find your mind going blank, the best thing you can do is try to relax and let your mind wander. When your mind wanders, it may latch onto the right key to pull up the memory you need. Buy yourself some time by saying, “I need a few moments to think about that.” If all else fails, tell the person you’ll get back to them later — via text or email.