Introverts on an Expat Team

Reading a book

 

Introverts are finally getting a LOT of attention.

That’s pretty ironic.

So many writers are addressing the challenges that introverts face in a world built for extraverts.  There is a trend . . .  a wave . . . some would even call it a revolution of information that is calling our attention to the fact that we have designed our systems to reward the outgoing and overlook the quietly reserved.

The dilemma is this . . . even if this is a true, game changing revolution it will likely take years to have a deep and lasting impact on the broader expat world which is generally at least two steps removed (he says generously) from the mainstream . . . and if it is just a trend then it will likely run it’s course and fizzle before the expats really get to taste it.

More irony — I don’t believe I have seen a social dynamic more blasted by the disparity between the outies and the innies than the expat world . . . specifically expat teams.

Groups of people gathered for a common purpose, living in community and sharing in the paradox of life as foreigners can be painfully, unequally stacked against the introvert.  Team building games, mandatory social events, round table decision making, professional development exercises — teams are built on obligatory social engagement from day one.

“Hey team . . . let’s do an ICE BREAKER.  You’re gonna’ love this!  Tie your shoelaces together, put two ping pong balls in your mouth, jump around the room and talk to EVERY SINGLE person until you find the three who have birthdays closest to yours.  Then you have five minutes to prepare a mock synchronized swimming routine to “Love Shack” which you will perform in front of the WHOLE team who will then judge you according to originality, enthusiasm and your weight.”

“Ready? Go!”

 

Even More irony — The rest of this post is specifically for introverts but they just broke into hives and quit reading.  We’ll get em’ next time.

I spend a lot of time with expat teams and this issue ALWAYS comes up.  Here are some thoughts from those conversations and from years of marriage to the most beautiful introvert on the planet:

 

1. Introverts add HUGE value to a team

Through all of the challenges, frustrations and hives — you bring tremendous worth to the team dynamic.  Someone needs to think before they speak.  Someone needs to say nothing when there is genuinely nothing to say.  Someone needs to NOT jockey for position, battle to be heard or chase rabbits around every single topic.  You are a support to the extravert, to be sure, but if the team is healthy the extravert will recognize your value and also be a support to you.

 

2.  Extraverts ALSO add HUGE value

Lest you get cocky.  Someone also needs to speak up.  Someone needs to say something . . . anything, even if it is stupid, so someone else can point out what a horrible idea it is and we can check it off the list.  Someone needs to say, “ENOUGH – we’re chasing rabbits, let’s get back on task.”  None of those people are likely to be you.  The extraverts are NOT your enemies.  In some ways they complete you (cue soft music) and you complete them.  When you’re connected . . . really connected . . . your extravert friend will bring the meeting to a screeching halt because they can see that you have something to say.  You need them as much as they need you.

 

3.  Being an Introvert does NOT mean you are a snob

You do run that risk though.  The scenario in your head that might go something like, “If I go, it’s going to suck the life out of me — but if I stay home, they’ll think I’m a snotty snot bag” . . . is probably not far from accurate.  Just because people are extraverted does not mean they aren’t also insecure. Neither does it mean that they are psychic.  Unfortunately people only know that you like them when you indicate, in some way, that you do.  Extraverts have got the verbal affirmation edge here but if you’re going to consistently bow out socially you should consider finding a safe, introvert friendly alternative for saying, “I really do like you people.”  Knowing that is not automatic.

 

4.  Being an Introvert does not mean you are NOT a snob

Sometimes it’s easy for introverts to find fault in other people because it grants them permission to not engage socially.  If you can rationalize that it is their fault then there is no reason to engage.  If you find yourself doing that more often than not . . . you may just be a snotty snot bag.  You should stop that.

 

5.  Initiate the conversation

If you’re living silently you’re leaving everything you do open for interpretation.  It’s easy, then, to judge the people who judge you.  “If they want to know they should come ask me.” But being an introvert is NOT a disability.  Have the discussion — with your close friends first, but spark the conversation among your team.  What does it even mean that you are an introvert?  What drains you?  What energizes you?  Point people to resources and engage.  If you take the lead you can choose the playing field.  If you ignore it, you’ll be playing on their field and you’ll start on defense.  Guaranteed.

 

sc bt6.  Make friends with an extravert

Some of the sweetest connections I have ever seen have been extreme innies and extreme outies.  They’re perfect at parties together.  The introvert can hide behind the extravert.  EX works the crowd just like she likes it and one by one brings her new friends over to the corner and introduces them to IN (just like she likes it).  IN doesn’t compete for attention and EX shields her from the crowds.  IN becomes a sounding board for EX and EX protects IN from disengaging completely.  It works.  Not automatically and not without intentionality but it works and sometimes it works brilliantly well.

 

7.  Adjust your plan

If the system is set up for extraverts you’re going to need to turn some knobs.  Language learning for example seems to come more naturally for extraverts because they like to  . . . well . . . talk to people.  However, hanging out in a crowded vegetable market or bouncing up and down in your seat and shouting “OOH OOH PICK ME TEACHER, PICK ME!!”  is not going to be your thing.  So find something different that works in your world.  Online study? Engaging one local friend and practicing over coffee at your place?  You have options.  Change your methods.  Change your paradigms.  Eventually you will change the team culture.  “Viva la Innies!”

 

8.  Be Proactively Digital

Introverts are finding their voice.  It’s just not out loud.  The world is rapidly becoming more and more introvert friendly.  I have seen extreme innies who have a completely different personality on in the blogosphere or on social media.  They are encouraging, engaging and would even seem to be outgoing — and then in person they might be timid and even borderline reclusive.  Run with that.  Be assured that the digital version of you is the real you.  We’re just on a different playing field.  This is your turf.  Own it and use it to be a part of the team.  Best part?  You can engage and energize at the same time . . . you’re practically a cyber-extravert.

 

9.  Withdraw to re-energize not to hide

The more you know yourself the more you will function well even if the surrounding system is built for extraverts.  Being an introvert doesn’t mean you CAN’T engage people.  It does mean that when you do, it drains you.  Extraverts, on the other hand, actually get energy from it.  When you learn to read your own gauge you can foresee when you are going to hit empty.  While you might prefer to crawl into a hole and never come out it is rare that you will have that luxury on a team.  Sometimes you NEED to engage.

Withdraw.  Refuel.  Re-engage.  Repeat.

 

10.  You are not alone

Trust me.  You are not the only one who feels the pain of going to yet another team meeting.  You are not the only one who fears that they will be called on publicly to come up to the front to be stared at.  You are not the only one who goes home, crashes hard and vows to do bad things to anyone who dares break your silence.  You’re not the only one who has watched 8 years worth of a sit com series in 2 weeks.  You are everywhere.  On every team.  All over the world.

You are SO not alone which you probably find incredibly encouraging — even though — more than anything — you just want to be alone.

Oh the irony

Know an expat Introvert?  Pass this on, they need to hear it.

Know an expat Extravert?  So do they.

Got some advice for the Innies or the Outies?  Please comment below.

 

Here are some resources and thoughts from other people around the interweb:

Susan Cain:  The Power of Introverts

Susan’s TED Talk

6 Things You Should Never Say to Introverts:  Madison Moore

5 Things Introverts Need to Stop Doing:  Kirby Morris

The Introverted Expat: Rachel Pieh Jones

35 Quotes for Introverts:  Christopher Hudspeth

An Introverted Expat: Life in Graz

 

9 Comments

  1. Well done. I am the introvert who has learned to live like an extrovert, but when I’m faced with meetings, I’d love nothing more than to just correspond by email. The perspective you brought to this new “fad” in talking about introversion is refreshingly balanced. Thanks for that. And gosh, why did you have to call me out on being snobby?

    Reply
  2. What about people who are both (or neither)? The older I get, the more skeptical I am of the introvert/extravert division. I read a quote recently that went something along the lines of, ‘my personality ebbs and flows between introversion and extraversion like the tide’ which I think is a particularly apt description. Sometimes I feel energized by being social, while at other times it’s draining; the same goes for solitude; it all depends. The same goes for work: I’d feel stifled if I were sitting in my office all day long, but I’d crack if I had to be actively engaged with people all day long too. I’ve also come to realize that I’m very good at making others feel welcome, but not so great at getting others to make me feel welcome. I’m not totally sure what’s my inherent personality and what’s learned anymore, and as your article states, both sides have value. I feel kind of put off by these either/or labels. Curious to know your thoughts. Btw, love the photo of Bekah and Sarah! 🙂

    Reply
    • I agree. I probably lean toward introvert, but can’t say that being with people drains me. I like alone time, but enjoy people as well.

      It’s difficult for me to initiate conversation, but I love a good debate.

      I’m a single person, with no team, in a foreign country. Some days I enjoy the lack of pressure, other days I long for someone to go out with me and initiate some interaction with the people of this tiny village.

      Reply
    • @Diane – Introversion/Extroversion isn’t an all-or-nothing deal. It’s a continuum. You sound like someone who falls in the middle somewhere – too much alone time and you crave people; too many people, and you crave a little solitude. This is true for many people who fall somewhere nearer the center of the spectrum.

      This doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are more solidly on one side or the other.

      My former roommate is a strong extrovert. After an intensive training where she lived in a dorm with a few dozen fellow trainees, literally spending 24/7 with them for 2 weeks, she told me she was worn out and needed a break. She spent the following day at home, chatting on the phone with various friend from morning till evening, then headed out to dinner with some friends. When I joking said, “I thought you needed some time alone,” she replied: “Well, I was home all day!”

      By contrast, as a true introvert, I often think longingly of the time I took a week long solitary retreat. In 8 days I spoke to people twice – both times just to order meals. As I drove 10 hours home alone (without even turning on the radio so I could continue to be alone with my own thoughts), I said to myself, “Now, if I could just have another couple weeks of this, I’d be ready to face people again.” Honestly, if I could have a week or two of complete solitude every month, it would be like heaven to me.

      For the record, neither my friend nor I has gotten more “balanced” as we’ve gotten older. We’re both in our late 40s, and if anything, we’re both more extreme.

      Reply
  3. Such good insight Diane and I couldn’t agree more although I think there is still a general validity in the divisions and some people definitely fit into one side or the other (but not all). I personally resonate with what you’re saying. My last trip to China was 3.5 weeks of non-stop meetings and seminars. People from morning to night and although it was exhausting it was exhilarating. I love every part of it. But stick me in a crowd of people I don’t know and I hate it. I’d rather stay home. I think we all have tendencies both ways in different situations. The team dynamic is a good example — There is a wide spectrum of how we deal with it but for some it is exciting, for some it is draining, for some it’s both and for some it’s neither.

    Had a great talk with Bekah and Sarah (actually when I took that pic) about how they feel they have both swung partially to the other side as the dynamics around them have changed.

    Food for conversation. Thanks for commenting.

    Reply
  4. “You are not the only one who goes home, crashes hard and vows to do bad things to anyone who dares break your silence.” Ha ha!! I now realize I’m not alone 🙂

    Reply
  5. Ah yes, the introvert trend! Thanks for posting on this. I feel like you went a slightly different way with it than I expected. I thought your post might mention the single introverts going home from people-centered work, shutting the door, and recharging, and then finding that they aren’t part of the plans to do things on Saturdays, holidays, etc, because (in part) they haven’t been engaging people during their non-work, non-sleep hours 5 days of the week – 6 if church also wears you out, though personally I was usually ready to share lunch with someone by that stage of the weekend. Of course, that can happen anywhere, expat or not, it just stands out a little more when you’re part of a “team” and that’s most of who you know and share a language with in your city.

    Speaking of language, thanks for mentioning language learning! I’m so grateful I had 1-on-1 teaching several of my years overseas… and also so grateful for the 3-on-1 class I had one summer, as those two other students became close friends <3

    Also, the link to "6 Things You Should Never Say to Introverts: Madison Moore" is broken. I'm Googling it now to see what he (she?) says!
    ~Lily

    Reply
    • Ha. “Not investing in relationships, and then acting like martyrs when we don’t have friends,” from the linked article about 5 things we innies need to stop doing 🙂 Yes, there’s that side to it too. I’ve been trying to find that balance this year, since I moved back to the US in part TO meet people. I may prefer my cozy hidey-hole of an apartment, but that defeats the purpose. OK, postscript finished.

      Reply
  6. i enjoy your blog immensely
    i was laughing hard about your Mum giving you a book at 16…
    please keep it up
    i am in a much more fraught situation. i have to repatriate, i have no friends and no relatives, no established carrier in Australia but i also can’t stay where i currently am. My husband still supports me finantially and that is my only buffer.
    your thoughts on trying to make it so that the repatriating process doesn’t kill your soul gave me new hope. i will try to take it a bit slower then i planned before, i will give myself a few easements.

    so Thank You
    your help meant a lot

    Reply

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