The Introverted Expat

by Rachel Pieh Jones on August 7, 2013

Introverts seem to be getting more attention these days, which might make most of us uncomfortable. 35 Quotes for Introverts. 27 Problems Only Introverts Understand. Susan Cain’s book Quiet. Donald Miller wrote about How to Get Along With an Introvert. How about the expatriate introvert?

Hi. I’m Rachel and I’m an introvert.

introvert1I don’t like change. I don’t thrive in new situations. I don’t get excited about meeting new people. I am oversensitive to noise and smell and touch. Places like airports and airplanes and developing world markets make me feel lightheaded and induce extra trips to bathrooms, if there are any. I am not good at surface conversation and at parties I prefer to find one or two people, settle onto a furesh (a long, low Somali cushion), and talk about the things that make us cry, or make us laugh, or make us furious, in other words the deep waters of our souls.

I just spent almost a month alone in Djibouti for the first time in my life. Is a wife and mother allowed to say this: For the most part, I enjoyed it.

I love people but sometimes I don’t like them. I love being with people and sometimes I want them to leave.me.alone.

I notice things my extroverted husband doesn’t. I pick up on subtle cultural cues and learn hand gestures as quickly as spoken vocabulary. I am comfortable being an outsider at a party because it is okay with me to sit back and observe. I am the first to know where burning tires block the road because my extra-sensitive sensors smell them first.

The expatriate world is peopled by extroverts, or at least people masquerading as extroverts. There are lists of ‘successful’ expats and often one of the primary underlying characteristics is extroversion.

People person. Talkative. Adventurer. Bold. Risk-taker.

Added to this is the pressure on Christians to ‘love Jesus out loud’ and many CEIs (Christian Expat Introverts) start to suffocate or shrivel. This quote from Susan Cain, author of Quiet (link below) captures it:

“Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.”

There are good reasons extroverts do well overseas. How do you learn a language? Typically by talking. How do you dig below the surface of a new culture? Typically by asking a lot of questions and getting involved. Expats have to communicate and build community and go to the market.

But expats also have to listen well to learn that language. To go deep, they have to be alert to nuances that locals might not even be consciously aware of. In that crowded market, expats don’t have to befriend every stall keeper. They can zoom in on one or two.

introvert2

While extroverts seem to be the type of expats who thrive, I beg to differ. Introverts bring unique skills to the overseas experience, family, workplace. We need each other.

If you’re an introvert:

  • Know it. There are strengths and weaknesses. Recognize your limits and when you need to back off. Knowing yourself well and planning accordingly releases pressure, decreases the chance of burnout, and will help you not yell at your children/spouse/dog/taxi driver.
  • Own it. Don’t be ashamed. So you are more sensitive to smells and are the first one to notice the sewage or the roses. Let your nose guide you to a new restaurant or to finding the bag of rotten hermit crabs stinking up the house (true story). Being an introvert is not the same as being timid and it is not weakness. It is courage and vulnerability, just like being an extrovert. Live it well.
  • Use it. Language learning will be exhausting because it requires copious amounts of time with people and you might be more hesitant to open your mouth and practice. Do it anyway, do it afraid, as Tara Livesay wrote. But remember that introverts thrive on deep, intimate conversations. This is fabulous for language learning and will enable you to develop vocabulary and to probe deeper into cultural aspects of language. Introverts are top-notch observers and are often excellent resources for cultural cues and subtleties.

If you are an introvert, married to an introvert, or find yourself working with an introvert, (so pretty much if you are alive and relate with humans) read Quiet by Susan Cain or watch her TED talk.

Are you an expat introvert or extrovert? How do you thrive?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, introverted development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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