The Other Half

My preschool induction into non-introverted chattiness has had its costs. For instance, I’m in my 50s and still figuring out who I am (see Once upon a time, I thought I knew who I was).

But I’ve mostly been spared the experiences that make so many other introverts seriously pissed off at extroverts. One thing introverts say over and over in blogs and videos is that you simply can’t make extroverts understand introversion. I haven’t yet had to try, so I can’t speak to that. But I had an experience recently that made me wonder whether that doesn’t cut both ways.

Peas In Different Pods

I have a neighbor who’s about as opposite to me as she could be. No matter what we discuss, we have nothing in common, except our good-natured attempts to find a connection despite repeated failures.

She has zero interest in animals or plants (two main loves of mine), but she adores people. She is on the phone 25 hours a day, sometimes on two lines at once. I know this because we live only a few feet apart, so we don’t have a lot of privacy.

It’s probably a good thing that I developed an understanding of extroversion not long after she moved in. Her non-stop socializing looks exhausting to me – and I’m a chatty introvert! – but I know to her it’s energizing. She needs it, like I need quiet. So I just close my windows on that side of the house and channel ambient nature noise through my earbuds.

Last week, I encountered her in the street, standing near a neighbor’s gate with her infant grandson. Because she was standing there, the neighbor’s dog was barking his head off. She knew this – in fact she was doing it on purpose because, she said, her grandson liked it. And it was true, or at least it wasn’t bothering him (clearly not an HSP baby!).

The amazing thing was that it obviously had not crossed her mind that this might bother any of the dozen or two neighbors living within earshot. It’s not that she’s an unthoughtful person – on the contrary, she’s been pretty sensitive on any occasion when I indicated the noise was a little much for me. I never had to complain about a specific type of noise more than gently, or more than once, for which I’m deeply grateful. But the barking didn’t annoy her, so it simply didn’t occur to her that it might annoy anyone else.

That’s when I realized that I literally can’t picture not being bothered by the barking. How is that even possible? What would it feel like? I just can’t get my mind around it. Like any good HSP, I have an active and vivid inner life, and can extrapolate from things that I have experienced to many that I haven’t, but there are limits to my imagination, and this is beyond those limits.

To be honest, I’ve prided myself on how early in life I realized that people are different inside. I thought I’d been applying that understanding to my relationships for the past 35 years. Only now am I truly grasping just how different that gets.

My conclusion? We don’t have to be alike to get along, but we have to be willing to believe what other people tell us about internal experiences that may seem completely alien to us. That faith, along with good will and respect on both sides, can allow us to live radically different lives side by side without animosity.
Graphic of overlapping profiles in different colors

When Differences Attack

I’m not suggesting that everyone brings the above-mentioned good will and respect to all their interactions. I know better. One of the reasons I’m so grateful for this neighbor’s responsiveness on noise issues is a very different experience with another neighbor, whose relentlessly barking dog and late night outdoor phone conversations stressed my life immeasurably for the better part of three years.

I screamed over her fence on several occasions when I just couldn’t stand another minute, but never attempted to sit down and explain to her how intensely her behavior was affecting my sleep, my work, and my enjoyment of my home. I assumed it would be obvious to anyone how bothersome that behavior was, therefore she clearly didn’t give a damn how she impacted others (I also figured the screaming, and the repeated visits from the police might have clued her in).

After years of this, another neighbor who was equally traumatized emailed her a desperate, last ditch, late night plea, describing how difficult her behavior was making his life and begging her to please, please stop. From that night forward her behavior changed. We were both stunned – deeply relieved, but mystified. Hadn’t we already communicated to her, over and over, in numerous ways, how intrusive her behavior was? Why did that one email reach her when nothing else had?

I can see now that she truly, literally might not have been able to imagine what she was doing to us until it was spelled out for her. Of course, there are other possibilities. I wasn’t the only person cc’d on that email. Maybe she was publicly shamed into looking like a considerate neighbor even if she wasn’t one at heart.

It’s all too common for noise-sensitive people to find themselves cast as over-reactive crazies. The knowledge that there are a lot of other people with sensory sensitivities has given me the confidence to ponder how I would talk about that in the context of a noise issue. I might ask a noisemaker to imagine that I hear a noise as 5 times louder than it sounds to them. The flip side of this is if I imagine what I’m hearing sounds 5 times “softer” to them, I’m less likely to assume that they are a**holes, or boundary-pushing bullies looking for a fight. Which would probably make that conversation go more smoothly.

Would such an approach have resolved the barking dog situation years earlier? We’ll never know. But next time, I’ll try that first.

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