My husband was out of town the other night. Usually when he’s away, I make something easy for dinner, like pasta with olive oil and parmesan. This time I had already planned tacos, so I made tacos. I spread the table with all the various bowls and plates: salsa, avocado, shredded cheddar, sautéed onions and bell pepper, corn, chopped cilantro, and minced onion.
The kids and I sat at the table together and ate dinner, like we do every night except Friday, when we order takeout and watch a movie. Often dinner is silent. None of us feel like we need to fill the silence with each other.
But this night it wasn’t silent. As our son assembled a taco, he said, “Why do people think that if you know someone well, or like someone, you have to know their eye color?” He put a few more corn kernals on his taco. “I don’t even know my own eye color.”
He doesn’t always talk a lot, and I love the things he comes up with when he does. He spends a lot of time in his head, and like many introverts, I suspect he is a fairly misunderstood, or at least under-understood, person.
“Yeah,” I said, “Knowing what makes someone tick is a much better indicator of whether you know them. Knowing what makes them happy or what stresses them out, or how they like to be communicated with.” Knowing how they process life, what kinds of activities they lose themselves in, what irritates them.
I ate my taco while I thought about this. It’s something I think about a lot, especially after reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Until I read that book, I mistakenly thought that all problems must be solved by talking through them. I thought problems must be solved by filling quiet space with words: by taking what’s internal and making it external. But I learned from that book that it doesn’t have to be that way, and for probably half of the world — the introverted half — externalizing is an unproductive way to process. That book gave me permission to be inside my head, to write or act instead of talk. It also helped me settle myself to observe others, and to tune into subtlety rather than only ever seeing the obvious (I’m still bad at the subtlety, though, like pretty terrible).
My son polished off his final taco, wiped his hands, and said, “I just don’t understand why knowing someone’s eye color would mean anything. How does knowing what someone looks like have any bearing on how well you know them?”
Good question, buddy. The answer is, it doesn’t. All the good and interesting stuff isn’t externalized in obvious ways. Discovering a person, truly knowing someone, takes time, and attention.