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.
  • Love this. I’m an introvert; my husband is an extrovert. Our experience has been a bit different as my husband works in IT, which is a department made of mostly introverts! Sometimes, I think that finding your place as an expat means finding something that you can do well as an introvert or extrovert.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Good words about finding what you do well, no matter your preference. For me that includes not comparing myself to a more extroverted person who might be much more visibly engaged or might know everyone in the market or something.

  • Sarata

    Wow – as an introvert expat in Africa I can completely identify with everything you wrote.
    I didn’t realise my enhanced sense of smell was part of my introvert personality lol – you learn something every day!
    Learning he language is hard for the very reason you stated – although now my toddler is teaching me it’s a little easier 🙂
    Thanks for that post – a nice little confidence booster when surrounded by extroverted Africans you can start to need it!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I got the smell bit from Cain’s book, so insightful and it made so much sense. I always smell things before my husband!

  • Husband and oldest son – strongly introverted. Two of my daughters – strongly extroverted. Eldest daughter, youngest son and I – primarily introverted, but we’ve learned to cope with crowds. Yes, there are strengths and weaknesses to all personality leans. Working with what each of us have been given towards the common goal affords us many opportunities for valuing diversity and finding creative solutions.

    I could totally enjoy a month alone. What a lovely gift. 🙂

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Learning to cope – love it. I suppose it is good for families to learn how to accommodate all types of personalities – I like how you put it about valuing diversity and finding creative solutions. I’ve had to learn to speak up about when I need to step away from a stressful time, or just when I need a break. I’ve been trying to give my kids that freedom/courage too if I sense they need it.

    • Richelle Wright

      we’ve got the range, too.
      2 extreme introverts, 3 extreme extroverts, 2 mild extroverts, 3 mild introverts (who can all function quite well as extroverts – but are then exhausted). when we’re in family situations, we’ve learned to tag team pretty well to give those introverts their needed breaks – and have learned to cope in those times outside our comfort zones because other family members need that zone.

      i’m going to have a week mostly alone (taking my oldest off to school – there will be activities for the parents of international students during this orientation week) – i’m in a hotel all by myself every evening/night. i’ve never done this before… well, not since i got married and started having kids, i should qualify. i’m looking forward to it ~ on several levels.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Yeah for time in a hotel alone! Wow, that will be so quiet for you. Hope you have some fun things planned, happy you get to do it!

  • Kali Carollo

    Love this post! I’m not an expat, but I did travel abroad in college and felt like I wasn’t “social” enough compared to most other travelers in my program. Now as a mom trying to raise bilingual children, it is hard as an introvert to create language-learning experiences for my family. I love your advice “do it afraid,” and I also take heart in knowing that there are language-learning strengths introverts have too! I definitely relate to the desire for deep conversation with one person, as opposed to a group setting. Thanks for the post!!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Interesting about creating the language-learning experiences for your family – to consider how introvert/extrovert children might learn language differently. What are some things you’ve done? (we’re raising bilingual kids too)

      • Richelle Wright

        we encourage our introverts to watch movies, listen to radio/tv, read – and then of course have the opportunities to talk. our older introvert taught a sunday school class at church – he spent a couple of hours preparing each week, quiet, in his room and then the hour.5 of sunday school was the oral/aural side.

        we encourage our extroverts to have friends, take classes in the community, skype or message on the phone – and then work on those more alone activities some as well, too. our older extrovert also taught a sunday school class. she spent 30-45 minutes preparing each week, dreading that part but thriving off the actual class interaction with her students. she also, most recently, had her super extroverted sister helping her and their class had a blast!

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          What great ideas Richelle. I love how you are seeing and helping your kids excel in how they are created.

      • Kali Carollo

        Well, for example it’s hard for me to initiate conversation, especially in my second language, Spanish, but I try to more often now with Spanish-speakers I meet to give my children the opportunity to hear it. I also, feel self-conscious about using Spanish with them in public, as it draws attention to us, but I am learning to not worry about that and focus on all the benefits of growing up bilingual!

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I know what you mean about feeling self-conscious. I used to hate speaking French to my kids at school, or to their teachers in front of other parents. But one thing I started to notice was that as I hung back, quietly and embarrassed, my kids started to hang back and get less engaged. So I had to force myself to set the pace and get involved. It still isn’t easy but you’re right – focus on the benefits.

  • A Hall

    Thank you so much for this post, Rachel. I can so relate to this. I am an expat in Europe with an extremely extroverted husband, and I am definitely an introvert. How comforting to know that we can both navigate a new language and a culture in different ways. We will soon be expats in Africa and will, again, have to navigate a new culture. We can “do it afraid” together in our own ways. Thank you for your insight, wisdom, and confidence booster.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Isn’t it amazing how introverts and extroverts tend to get matched? My husband is an E, too. I think he is a good balance for me. And you will bring a lot of strengths to your transition too, as an I.

  • Jenni Gate

    Rachel, I am not an expat, but as you know I grew up as a TCK. One of my sisters.and I are both introverts.whenever I take the Meyers Briggs test, I end up about as far as you can go on the introversion scale. Yet, as a TCK, I learned to put up an extroverted front when necessary to make friends or maneuver a tricky social situation. I have noticed a high rate of introversion amongst TCKs, and although the research seems to point to a genetic basis for introversion, Ihave to wonder if all the worlds we are exposed to as children growing up globally triggers introversion for some of us. Being repeatedly uprooted and moved tends to make us hang back and watch for the social cues in any situation.

    Great post and very thought-provoking. Thank you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love the piece and love this comment Jenni! Your words about “all the worlds we are exposed to” triggering introversion have been true for me. I started out an extrovert…more and more I could be classified as an introvert and it is definitely about being uprooted and moving. When I get back to “my” places, I move back into extoversion!
      Rachel – I really loved your “Know it, Own it, Use it” – this is brilliant advice for me here in the United States! Thanks once again for a great post.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Thanks Marilyn. So good to hear your words confirm Jenni’s. Like I wrote to her, I’d love to look into this more. The uprooted/moving aspect makes a lot of sense too.

      • Jenni Gate

        Marilyn, I started out as an extrovert too! My sisters were painfully shy, even the one who is super extroverted now. When we moved to a new place, I used to be the one to go out and make friends and bring them back for my sisters to meet. It’s strange that my little sister and I traded places as we aged. She’s now the one to get out and meet people, and I’m more likely to hold back and take my time, watch, wait, and listen before jumping in.

        Rachel, I hope you do dig into this a little more. I think there was a Facebook thread somewhere on one of the TCK pages (I can’t remember, but maybe something like the page “I’m a Third Culture Kid, don’t try and understand me.”) that first caught my attention where by far the greatest number of people responding said they were introverts, and they thought their upbringing had a lot to do with it.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Thanks Jenni, I’ll google it or search FB. Maybe Denizen.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      So interesting to hear this Jenni, about TCKs and introversion/extroversion. I would love to delve into that more. I think my initial expectation would be TCKs would be more inclined to be extroverts but your words about hanging back and observing are really insightful.

      • The Benjamina

        Hey Rachel; I’m a TCK too – youngest of a family of four, and I usually score off the charts extroverted, although that’s lessened some as I hit my upper 20s. Two of my siblings are also extroverted, but one is introverted — I think this 3:1 ratio is largely because our parents are both rather extroverted too. Different than many TCKs, however, I spent all my childhood in basically one city – so while there was the transition of others into and out of my life – I had long term predictability – so maybe that’s the major difference between Marilyn/Jenni/Dan’s experiences and my own. I travel a good bit for work now, but I’ve very intentionally cultivated a deep home base for a “mooring”.

        To Jenni’s point about watching for social cues – I think it’s why so many TCKs study Anthropology/Sociology/International Relations&Politics, etc – regardless of where/how we get our energy we have learned that you have to see more outside of yourself and your own particular viewpoint. I think in my family the extroverts are equally if not more attentive to social cues and group dynamics – but that would only be true if by attentive you mean deciding to translate that into action (because I don’t necessarily know what my brother might be observing/cataloging about social cues).

        Funny about the heightened olfactory senses; I smell things keenly too – but maybe that’s an anomaly. I’ll have to look into that more – I’ll ask my brother when I see him next – as otherwise we’d have similar genes.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Great to hear from you. This comment is so insightful, I love the thoughtfulness in your words about the ‘mooring’ and about social cues. Not being a TCK but raising three, I can already see their ability to see outside themselves in a unique way that makes them very aware of how people are feeling/reacting to a situation, or the needs that might be going unmet. Thanks for sharing and contributing to this from a TCK perspective. I have so much to learn.

    • Duane & Carin Guthrie

      Jenni, thanks for the TCK perspective. I have two TCK’s and observing them, I think you may be on to something :0)

  • Liz K

    I feel like the older I get the more introverted I get. And thank you for highlighting the strengths this can bring. My husband is the social butterfly of the family, and it’s hard with my struggling language skills and whatnot to find that one person in the room to talk with. But I will try to “do it afraid”! Love that phrase!!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks to Tara Livesay for that phrase, I find myself thinking it often. Much better than others like Just Do It! I used to think the I/E thing wouldn’t change but I’ve found myself changing over the years too, depending on where I live. Getting more introverted. Or maybe I’m just getting more comfortable with owning it and living in it.

  • Shelly

    The longer we are expats the more introverted I have become. I live with a house full of rowdy extroverts who live for adventure and risk and striking up conversations with strangers. Over time, they have learned to value making time for quiet moments of reflection and solitude and I have learned to find joy in inviting an entire train car of fellow travelers to play cards with our family.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I take it that was a real situation on the train – so fun! I need to learn from the extroverts in my life/family too.

      • Shelly

        Yes, very real situation. My oh so charming, then 10 year old, had a train full of stuffy Parisians playing Crazy 8’s. By the end of the train my family had accumulated email addresses, invitations for future vacations and had extended numerous gestures in kind. Some people we met took us up on our offers and visited us. I LOVE those people dearly and know had I been on my own I would have never met them. I would have probably read a really great book or talked to one other person, certainly I would not have made life long friends.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          What a beautiful story, I love this! Thanks for sharing it Shelly.

  • Marit

    I am an introvert and treasure time to myself, but I also love new countries, new experiences, new smells because they make me feel alive! Crowds are fine too, as long as I’m walking in them by myself so I can smell, taste and look to my hearts content. Some of my best memories of being a TCK are of sensory experiences by myself.

    Sadly, the discovery that I am an introvert has been a long time coming. It’s only been a couple of months since I’ve been able to label my behavior as introvert instead of antisocial, rude, arrogant or unfriendly.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love how you describe being in the crowd but enjoying it as YOU want to, at your own pace and in your own way. That’s beautiful.

    • Duane & Carin Guthrie

      Love the crowd observation comment. So true! It always makes me feel truly alive :0)

  • Love this post (and this whole site in general). I grew up as a TCK in 5 countries on 3 continents, definitely an introvert now, but I seem to remember myself being more extroverted as a kid/teen. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to catch friends, taxis, bargains, grown-ups’ attention and other overseas commodities that can seem scarce to a TCK. Plus, sub-Saharan rainforests, Himalayan foothills, and tropical jungles aren’t teeming with technological noise like in the U.S. There is verbal space to be filled.

    I also think I’ve become more introverted as an adult living in America because I married an extrovert after college 10 years ago (also a TCK) and I’ve found my niche as the yang to her yin. During trips we’ve made back to visit where we grew up in Southeast Asia, it’s been fascinating to re-enter those once familiar places observing things afresh as an introvert. Extros and intros, kids and adults, international and domestic, need each other.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      This is so interesting Dan, thanks for sharing. There seems to be a common thread about TCKs and introversion going here. You make a good point about the verbal space to be filled – I feel like that too, with less technology around, there is more space for me to fill up my introverted quiet needs and then I am able to branch out into some more extroverted-tendencies in the community. In the US I feel like I retreat more.

      • Yes, very interesting! I started analyzing my America self and my Russia/Ukraine self last year, and this is very true for me, too. I don’t know if I hide more in the US because I’m so overwhelmed on visits there, or if it is that there is more “verbal space” here.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          I said to my coworker during the first few months in Somalia that I thought had changed into an extrovert, because I felt such a strong need to get out with people. She said, “I don’t think you’ve changed, I just think you get filled up here because of the pace and quietness. So then you have the energy you need to go out.” That was 12 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.

  • Duane & Carin Guthrie

    Hello, my name is Carin and I am an introvert :0)
    I love this post!!! I have another confession. I am married to an extreme extrovert. It has been a wild ride to be an expat, in a second language. I agree about the awareness of subtle cultural nuances and having to really listen to understand in a new language, or being in the market and going to the same venders every week :0) This experience overseas makes me chuckle at all the stretching :0)

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I married an extrovert too and am so thankful – he stretches me and helps me come more to the middle. Although I still talk more!

  • Kathy

    ‘Quiet’ was the book that explained me to myself (after 58 years) and helped me to look at our five (now grown) kids in a new light. I would recommend it to anyone. Introverts have so many strengths not recognized and/or nurtured in the American popular culture of today, a fast-paced, do-it-all, live-out-loud one. I have permission to be who I am, to like it, and to give myself quiet, time, and space while recognizing the wonderful gusto extroverts bring to our lives. Thanks for your writing. You make me think deeply and laugh. Sometimes both. I have been looking through old photos for a project for Marie and there you were, growing up too. Life is so fleeting.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Ah, I didn’t put the Kathy together with the Marie until the last line (so happy for her!) I feel like the book explained a lot of things in my marriage too – like why I hate it so much when Tom reads in bed at night with the light on, or why I can smell stinky things in the house before he can. I’m not overreacting, I’m being an introvert with heightened senses.

  • Tim

    Introversion is not a desirable trait in Colombia, where I grew up. Returning there as a 50-something adult TCK, I learned from my fiancee (now my wife) to greet everyone I talk to, store clerks and cashiers and taxi drivers and receptionists, before I ask questions or make requests.

    When I was studying linguistics 20-some years ago, a major article on language learning by Krashen suggested that the way children learn language can be instructive for adults. He pointed out that in children, comprehension far outpaces production; people learn by hearing things that go slightly beyond what they already know. I found this very liberating, and when I taught language learning courses later, I encouraged my introverted students to do a lot of careful listening instead of feeling obliged to rush into talking. This meant they needed to push themselves to be present in social situations, but they could feel comfortable being quiet.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Yes! This is so great, thanks for commenting Tim. Listening is key for language learning, good point about that strength for introverts. And good advice too – to be pushed out, but able to be quiet.

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  • fthis

    ” she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’”

    disgusting gutless blasphemer. Allah is not the God of the Bible gutless woman.

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