You know when my hair looks ridiculously amazing? Like I’ve stepped right out of a shampoo ad? Like I should be head-tossing in sexy slo-mo to a Barry White soundtrack?

On the way to the hairdresser.

Anyway, at a recent hairdresser appointment, having squandered my rare good hair day on the walk over, I had a classic introvert experience. Here’s what happened.

A sweet shampoo girl offered me ‘a relaxing hand massage’ while my conditioning treatment worked its magic. How perfect, I thought, conjuring visions of a lovely massage, aromatic scents wafting about me, as I blissed out into a peaceful coma. Given my previous introvert overload experiences with massages you’d think I’d know better. But ‘relaxing’ was built right into the description – what could go wrong?

So I accepted gratefully, extended my hand, closed my eyes, lay back in the chair, and prepared to enjoy this little oasis of serenity.

But just as my mind began to swirl with the pleasure of the scented cream and a smile started to spread across my face, I was jolted from my reverie.

So do you have children?

I opened my eyes to find the girl seated very close beside me, staring intently at me, leaning forward eagerly as she massaged. And by ‘massaged’ I mean held my hand and periodically squeezed.

Um, no, I said simply. I thought if I gave a minimal response and closed my eyes again, she would get the hint. I leaned back into the reclined chair.

Oh really. Why’s that? Are you planing to? 

Um, not sure, I murmured. Which technically isn’t a lie because anything could happen.

Do you have brothers and sisters? 

I started to perspire. This was not going well. I now realised ‘relaxing hand massage’ was a cruelly misleading advertisement for this ordeal.

In fact ‘relaxing hand massage’ meant this girl would sit beside me, bore into my soul with her eyes, and gulf-stream a barrage of questions at me. While intermittently caressing my hand.

Like many introverts, I loathe small talk. I don’t mind talking to a stranger if there’s a natural connection, an unforced point of mutual interest that happens spontaneously, organically. In fact, friends have accused me of being flirtatious because I’ll happily and sometimes deeply engage with service staff when shopping, or wait staff at a restaurant, because we’ve made a genuine connection over something. Shoes or wine, usually.

But if I am required to chit-chat, and especially if I have to answer personal questions from someone I don’t already know and like, it’s a form of torture, second only to ice-breaker activities at a team-building weekend away. And doubly awful because there’s not the promise of imminent cocktails to ease the pain.

Another time I recently felt this same sense of being trapped and psychologically invaded was at the gym. A fellow class participant whom I don’t personally know approached me after class and fired a series of questions at me.

What classes do you do?
Why do you do those?
Why do you do that stretch?
How long have you been coming here?
What is your diet?

None of these are questions I mind answering. But I feel decidedly antagonistic towards a stranger who asks me questions in this intrusive way. And I felt cranky for some days after this exchange.

I realised later that the reason I felt put out was largely my own fault.

You see, I had answered about myself, explaining how things are for me, and why I do things the way I do, and sharing my personal approach. I barely knew the woman – of course it felt intrusive and unpleasant.

Instead, I should have answered about her. I should have asked what her goals were and suggested classes that would help her achieve those. I should have said I do the classes and stretches that feel right for me, and that she should do what feels right for her.

I should have focussed on answering what she needed to know for her, not on giving up excessive information about me.

It’s that laser focus on us that can be so unpleasant for introverts.

Thankfully, I handled things slightly better at the hairdresser.

Realising there would be no end to the questioning onslaught, I sadly surrendered my relaxing-hand-massage fantasy and salvaged what I could of my inner peace.

Which meant not passively letting the questions assail me. Which meant taking charge and turning the questioning tables.

Do you have brothers and sisters? I asked.

Each answer opened the door to another question I could ask.

How old are they?
Do you all live at home?
Who does the cooking?

She answered chattily and happily. Smiling and laughing as she shared little stories about her family.

Did I feel like a phoney asking questions I had zero interest in? You betcha.

But it was better than facing the question fusillade and reaching emotional boiling point and eventually either snapping at her or holding it in and later snapping at someone whose only fault was to ask if I knew where Pottery Barn was.

I’m grateful for both these experiences, though, as they’ve helped me develop a strategy for dealing with strangers who question you intrusively. Or in a way that feels intrusive to introverts.

First, work out what the other person is looking for – information to help their own goals, social interaction, whatever – and try to provide it in a way that doesn’t make your introverted self feel psychologically violated.

Second, keep the focus on the other person by asking them questions.

Third and most importantly, never be drawn in by the offer of a ‘relaxing hand massage’. You will regret it.