Keeping in Touch When You’re an Introvert: Breaking the Curse of the Familiar Stranger

It happens to everyone – we've really been meaning to talk to a particular friend who we haven't seen in ages, but our good intentions never seem to manifest as actions. Even social butterflies can sometimes find that work, family, or other obligations make going out for a drink or catching a movie with a friend a difficult proposition. But where the more extraverted among us are more likely to “make time” to reconnect with someone important, busy introverts have a tendency to say to themselves, “Tomorrow, maybe this weekend. Before the end of the month, for sure.”

And before they know it, a year has gone by without so much as a phone call or a text, and that person who once seemed so important is now just a picture on Facebook. A familiar stranger.

If you're an introvert – or if you feel like you're the familiar stranger in this scenario – then this pattern should be all too recognizable. But what can be done about it? How does an introvert break the cycle, or better yet, stop it before it starts?

Why Don't You Just Call Them?

On the face of it, it sounds like a simple solution – if you want to stay in touch with someone, then stay in touch. A single call, text, email, or Facebook comment later, and your problem is solved! After all, with 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week, surely you can spare five minutes for a friend, right?

The reality, of course, is much more complex. While extraverts have little trouble maintaining a great number of more surface-level, but nonetheless meaningful, friendships, introverts often see a much clearer divide between the deep, soul-baring relationships that they have had with their true friends, and the genial but ultimately disposable interactions that they have had with mere acquaintances. And when someone who an introvert has categorized as a “true friend” seems to be in danger of falling into “acquaintance” territory, the introvert can begin to have gnawing feelings of guilt, even shame, at the idea of “abandoning” the friend.

This guilt can sometimes compel an introvert to make that leap, to send a call or text out of the blue, but just as often, guilt is accompanied by anxiety, the fear that the person in question has taken the extended silence of the introvert as evidence of how lightly their friendship was regarded, or worse yet, as an intentional snub. Thus, in an effort to avoid the awkwardness that a long-delayed communication can create, the introvert may choose to let the friendship die the long, slow death of silence, instead.

Social Media: A Blessing and a Curse

While Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the seemingly endless array of apps that we now have at our disposal have seemingly made “losing touch” with someone into an anachronism, social media can cause as many problems for introverts as it solves.

Namely, although social media can be used for “active” communication with someone – direct messaging on Twitter or commenting on someone's Facebook wall, for instance – all too often, the initial “friending” or “following” is the last interaction that two people have on one of these apps. So while in theory, one is still “in touch” – you might read updates on a friend's life every day, see photos multiple times a week – this passive consumption of a person's life can only lead to further alienation.

After all, the part of us that we share on social media – even those of us who seemingly live there! – is only a tiny facet of our lives, and it lends itself to forming a heavily distorted picture of who we are to those who do not know us more intimately. So while two friends who regularly see each other in person, talk to each other by phone, or even directly chat with one another over Facebook or another social media app may see each other's social media profiles as little more than a peripheral product, an introvert that has long since ceased to have this direct contact is in danger of being “friends” with an image that has little basis in reality.

The Instagram shot of a wild night on the town may cause the introvert to not reach out, inferring that the person has a full social life without considering that the photo may be an outlier, one crazy evening in an otherwise sedate existence; the constant stream of “work work work” status updates on Facebook may be taken as a sign that the person is too busy to be disturbed, rather than the veiled invitation for someone to break up the monotony that was the person's intent; an errant tweet about “fair weather friends” may be taken to heart, when it was meant only in jest. All of these misconceptions could be cleared up with a brief exchange of messages that, again, the guilt and anxiety of the introvert prevents him or her from initiating.

Coping With Guilt, Overcoming Awkwardness

Keeping in touch is no small feat for an introvert, and social media can be as much a hindrance as a help. So what is an introvert to do?

First, it is important to remember that not all friendships are worth the effort. There may be a perfectly valid reason why you never want to see this person again – a supposed “friend” who was, upon reflection, nothing but a toxic influence in your life, for instance. In that case, there is no need to feel guilt for wanting to keep your distance. It is also important to remember that, for an introvert, a small circle of close friends may be all that one can psychically handle, and while a particular acquaintance may be a nice person, it doesn't require you to keep up the same level of involvement that one has with one's nearest and dearest.

If, however, you determine that you are not simply trying to act “normally” – the perception that less confident introverts may have regarding extraverts' social behaviors – then the question becomes how to conquer the feelings of awkwardness that can inhibit communication. And while introverts may be tempted to list all of the day-to-day inconveniences that prevented them from reconnecting, or come up with a pretext, no matter how flimsy, for contacting the person, it is best to avoid these tactics. Long-winded explanations of how busy one has been can ring false, only reinforcing the idea that this person is low on the introvert's list of priorities, while artificial pretexts may cause the other person to feel disposable, even used.

Here, honesty is the best policy. If you feel compelled to offer some explanation for a prolonged period of silence, a simple apology and an acknowledgment of your shortcomings in this area are all that is needed. A friend who was once close should know you well enough to understand that there was no personal slight intended, and before you know it, the shared interests and histories that made you close before will quickly make you forget the time that has passed since you last spoke. And if the friend was never that close, ask yourself again: do you really want to reconnect, or are you only acting on misplaced feelings of guilt?

An Ounce of Prevention

For an introvert, maintaining a friendship is like exercising. It never quite loses that feeling of “work,” but as long as one doesn't put it off too long, it doesn't have to be a chore, either.

And just like a good exercise regimen, maintaining a friendship doesn't have to consume your life. A couple of minutes a day spent commenting on a friend's Instagram pics or Facebook updates may be all the interaction needed to feel connected enough that more extended interactions – an invitation to a movie or a lengthy Skype chat – feel less like monumental events and more like an organic outgrowth of your day-to-day life.

As the old saying goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While a single text here or a quick comment there might not sound like much, it may be just enough to break the cycle of the familiar stranger before it starts.