The other day I was crossing a busy street at a walk sign.

An old couple was also crossing, s-l-o-w-l-y. As I began to overtake them I noticed a car edging close, trying to intimidate them into speeding up. I slowed and moved between the couple and the car, pacing myself with the couple and making eye contact – not aggressive, but deliberate – with the driver. The car stopped pushing closer, clearly cowed by my 160cm frame and combat-honed muscles. The elderly lady whispered Oh thank you dear, you’re so kind, as she and the man continued their protracted progress. We got to the other side and I wished the couple a happy day and walked on.

But the truth is, my small good deed was instinctive and took neither thought nor effort, so deserved no credit. It was a basic, fellow-human thing, probably programmed into my DNA because, evolutionarily speaking, it has social value.

But– not so fast! Being kind to strangers is not always so easy.

Especially if you’re an introvert. Especially if you preemptively dislike strangers because it simply saves time. Especially if you often feel all peopled out.

How was it that an extreme introvert like me could act out of character – approaching strangers, making eye contact in a potentially threatening situation? And easily, comfortably, happily?

This wasn’t even an isolated thing. I’ve often encouraged new, struggling participants in combat class, spoken to strangers who seemed to be in distress, offered help to random individuals. Yes friends, I’m talking about proactive, voluntary interactions with unknown persons. Egads!

I believe the reason I can easily be kind is that I don’t deplete my people battery by being nice.

Your people battery? you sigh with resignation. Another one of your theories?

Yes, my people battery.

Let me explain.

My Theory Of People Batteries

1. Introverts have a smaller people battery than extroverts

The first prong of my theory is that everyone has a people battery – a store of energy for interacting with people.

The more extroverted you are, the bigger your people battery.

You can chat and network and meet strangers and go to parties and toss your people resources around like mason jars at a hipster cafe and still have plenty of charge on your people battery.

Conversely, the more introverted you are, the smaller your people battery.

You simply don’t have a large cache of psychological resources for groups and stranger interactions and personal space invasions. You need to preserve your battery charge with care or you get all peopled out.

2. Being kind uses little battery power, being nice uses lots

The second prong of my theory is that different kinds of people interactions require different amounts of battery power.

Being kind uses little battery power. It’s paltry, chicken feed, literally, ‘food for poultry’*, which is the Latin root of paltry. (*Not even slightly the Latin root of paltry.)

This is why it was easy to help the elderly pedestrians, even for an extreme introvert like me. Being kind feels good. Psychologically, it costs nothing.

According to this theory, it’s only difficult for an introvert to be kind if their people battery is flat. And you know what drains an introvert’s battery faster than a bloated iOS update?

Being nice. 

Being nice uses tons of battery power. It’s a massive drain on an introvert’s social resources.

Why Is Niceness So Draining For An Introvert?

Why does niceness cost introverts so much?

Being nice can involve multiple forms of social exertion and what feels to an introvert like insincerity. This can cause the average introvert to long for a zombie apocalypse and/or armageddon in order to escape the situation.

You have to think up things to say – often phoney things, not how you genuinely want to interact at all. Perhaps you have to shake hands – eww. Often you feel pressured to show interest in something that makes your eyeballs want to roll back into your head. Maybe you’re asked questions that seem intrusive coming from someone you barely know. Frequently there’s small talk, chit chat, superficial banter with people straight from circle 2 of introvert hell. And then of course you need a fake smile plastered across your face to disguise the fact that you’re internally screaming.

For an introvert all of this is mentally taxing and emotionally exhausting and utterly battery depleting.

Being Nice Versus Being Kind

If your default position is to always be nice, then you may wonder if there’s much difference. Doesn’t being kind include being nice?

Nuh-uh. Here are some ways kind and nice differ:

  • Being nice takes energy, tons of it. Being kind gives energy – you feel enlivened by it.
  • Being nice makes at best a small difference to someone’s day. Being kind can make a huge difference to someone’s day.
  • Being nice can feel fake. Being kind always feels genuine.
  • Being nice may be superficial. Being kind goes deep.

Perhaps most importantly:

Being nice is about you, wanting the other person to like you. Being kind is about them, attending to a genuine human need.

I’m Bart Simpson, Who The Hell Are You?

I was working at home one day when there was a knock at the door. No one had buzzed the intercom, probably because I keep it turned offThe knock was coming from inside the building.

Irritated at losing my hard-won focus and worried about a deadline, I grumped off to answer the door. A woman I didn’t know, without introducing herself or asking if it was a convenient time, hit me with a barrage of questions about the building.

I blinked and heard myself say, channelling Bart Simpson, Who are you?

Turns out she was a prospective purchaser of one of the other apartments. I didn’t know the answers to her questions and politely suggested she ask the agent. She wanted to keep talking but I said I was in the middle of something and needed to return to work.

Was I rude? Maybe. I certainly wasn’t ‘nice’.

Nice would have been faking interest in her questions, guessing at answers I had no idea about, standing there and chatting until she wound things up, while silently fretting about my deadline.

Nice would have been insincere – all sweetness on the outside and vexation on the inside.

Nice would have been getting back to work 20 minutes later having lost my train of thought and peace of mind while contributing zero help to the woman.

I’m okay with not being nice.

I don’t shake hands, or show concern I don’t feel over strangers’ woes, or feign interest in small talk, or try to be liked by people I don’t know. It’s clear to me I have a nano people battery, a minuscule quantity of resources for dealing with people, especially strangers.

I save my people juice for those I truly care about, and I always have plenty to spare for kindness.

If You Run Out Of People Battery Then Stop Being So Damn Nice

If your people battery is large enough for you to be nice and also kind, then great – do both.

But if you’re always running out of people juice then consider cutting back on the things you do and say out of social niceness.

You don’t have to be rude, you can remain polite and considerate. But once you feel insincerity and frustration taking over, it could be a sign you’re tipping into nice territory and draining your people battery.

As an introvert you need to be protective of your people resources. It will give you heaps more energy for your loved ones. And for being kind.