Even though I felt betrayed by my own body language, I had to laugh. My coworker and I had an awkward exchange that was a textbook-perfect example of how personality type affects communication. Although I didn't ask her afterwards, I'm willing to bet we saw the same situation very differently. I’ll share the same story twice to decode my introvert body language.
The Extrovert’s Version of the Story
I stopped my coworker in the hallway to ask how she wanted our team to celebrate her upcoming birthday. She always arranges a birthday lunch for each of us, so I wanted to do the same in return. Her response was kind of weird though. She tried to deflect the question and writhed sideways as if physically uncomfortable. I just wanted to do something nice, so I’m not sure why she responded so strangely.
The Introvert’s Version of the Story
An outgoing coworker stopped me in the hallway and asked me an unexpected personal question. It was a perfectly reasonable question, not too intrusive, and came from a place of genuine caring. But I wasn't ready for it. As I thought about my answer, I unconsciously turned to the side almost as if to protect myself. I realized this a few moments later and turned back, hoping I didn’t seem disinterested or rude. The combination of the unexpected attention, answering a personal question, and our close proximity made me feel vulnerable even though my coworker radiated nothing but warmth.
One time a coworker brought a piece of paper to my office where I sat with my back to the door. When I turned to greet her, I was eye-level with the paper and immediately started scanning it and offering feedback. As our conversation wound down, I noticed she was wearing a bright, yellow scarf. What struck me was not the scarf itself, but the realization that I was many minutes into the conversation before I ever looked up at her eyes. I had failed to acknowledge her or engage with her visually while talking! This was a huge eye contact mistake. What a missed opportunity to make the person feel welcome or appreciated for the work she had done.
When I worked with individuals with disabilities, I was particularly close to a 30-something-year-old lady I'll call Debra. Debra was warm, thoughtful, fun-loving, and like most of us, happiest when she had the approval of those around her. We shared many happy memories, although from all our time together, the thing I remember most is the lesson she taught me about effective nonverbal communication.
One week we attended a church service with a group of other individuals with mild disabilities. During the service I was seated a row in front of Debra and a few seats down. At one point while the minister was speaking, I heard Debra whisper something to her neighbor and giggle. Feeling self-conscious already about our large group, I felt a flare of embarrassment and turned quickly to glare at Debra to try to stop the giggling. Debra fell instantly silent. Just as I was thinking "phew, I took care of that," I registered the look on Debra's face. Her eyes were downcast and her whole face crumpled at having disappointed me.
My choice of nonverbal communication had failed in its goal. In that moment I realized I could have instead turned quietly, made eye contact, and slowly shook my head. I had used my eyes as a weapon instead of a tool.