Thriving Abroad as an Introverted Expat
By Taylor Joy Murray
Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 22 | January/February 2016
Sometimes I think I will never be a “good” expat.
You see, I love my expat world. I delight in my life overflowing with people. But after nine years of living abroad, I’ve discovered that my expat lifestyle and introverted personality conflict in more ways than I ever imagined.
I’ve struggled to strike up conversations in my second language because of my quiet temperament. Explorations of my new surroundings are stressful because of my not-so-adventurous personality.
At cafés? I’m perfectly content with sitting by myself for three hours straight. At parties? The kitchen is my haven. And when the kitchen isn’t in sight, I resort to the restroom for quick reprieves of solitude. I’m as introverted as introverted can be. But these struggles can fuel discouragement and insecurity when I see my extroverted friends speaking fluently, discovering new places, and befriending locals or other expats with ease.
I’ve been known to declare with exasperation, “I just wish I were an extrovert!” Sometimes I think it would make life abroad much easier.
The “Extroverted” Expat World
“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,” writes Rachel Pieh Jones in her article The Introverted Expat.
Bold. Talkative. Adventurous. Risk-taker. Spontaneous. People-person. At first glance, these are characteristics associated with most expats who move abroad. When extroversion seems to guarantee successful expatriation, we introverts can believe our more-reserved nature will hinder us from transitioning well.
For this reason, many introverted expats unwittingly force themselves to function as extroverts. This pretense leaves us exhausted, overstimulated, and deeply discouraged. But because of our “extroverted” lifestyles, we can feel guilty about taking time alone to re-energize, believing we must fully immerse in order to be successful.
After many years abroad, I’ve discovered that introverted expats can be successful while still functioning as introverts. These five tips to thriving as an introvert can ease the transition to a life abroad.
Tip #1: Explore Your New Culture the Stress-free Way
When my family entered the expat world, we felt pressure to explore our new city. As introverts, we stressed ourselves out trying to keep up with the pace of our extroverted friends. But unlike us, they were actually energized by taking risks. Their daring and exploratory spirits came naturally.
Is something wrong with us? We wondered. We knew it was extremely important to familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings – but not all in two weeks! Soon, we were worn out and completely confused.
Then we discovered something radical. Life-changing. And definitely freeing for any introvert like me: It’s okay to explore your new culture through the Internet and books first, in the safety of your home. Prepare yourself internally before engaging externally. Then, as curiosity leads, slowly follow. Don’t immerse yourself the moment you step off the plane. Your host country will still be there. And if you explore your new culture introvert-style, you will be too.
Tip #2: Schedule Introverted Cave-Time
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain describes introverts as rubber bands. She writes, “We can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point. Our inborn temperaments influence us regardless of the lives we lead.”
An expat’s life can be a whirlwind of noise, change, hectic transitions, and short-term relationships. For me, every aspect of the expat’s lifestyle above is extremely stretching. If we stretch ourselves too thin, we will snap.
The solution? Cave-time.
“Carve out restorative niches,” Cain recommends. Don’t feel guilty about craving solitude. Know you need it. Schedule time for it. And guard it. Cave-time is essential to thriving as introverted expats. We function best by stepping in and out of our host cultures.
Tip #3: Tag Along with an Extroverted Friend
When my family moved abroad, we needed to build a new community. Socializing and networking are important steps during the initial months of transition.
Normally, networking strikes fear into most introverts. Honestly, sometimes I just don’t want to be friendly. The constant stream of introductions and small talk during my family’s transition abroad wore me out.
Solution? As quickly as possible, befriend an extrovert. An introvert and an extrovert make the perfect pair. I hide behind my extroverted friend. She makes introductions; I practice my natural skill of reflective listening. She carries the conversation; I move the conversation to more depth. She makes everyone laugh while I delight in watching. Introverts and extroverts need each other, especially if we are expats in the throes of transition.
Tip #4: Be Patient. Language Might Come a Little Slower
As any expat, I was determined to learn my second language quickly. My family and I immediately began studying. My introvert-fueled ambition and textbook-loving tendencies kicked into full gear.
One year passed. And then another. I formally studied the language much longer than my extroverted friends. But they immersed themselves daily in our new culture, learning the language by talking to locals. For me, just too many words at too fast a pace. In the end, I spoke faultily, and they spoke fluently.
“What am I doing wrong?” I cried, “I’m studying more than they are!”
After this minor breakdown followed by a few hours of cave-time, I decided to approach language learning a different way. Instead, I needed to balance introverted study time and extroverted conversation practice.
I began to search for a quiet, safe spot to practice language one-on-one. This way, I could speak at my own speed. I could ask questions about grammar and reflect on new vocabulary without feeling hurried or rushed. I could minimize the amount of words and slow down the speed of our conversation. This language-learning style was the perfect fit for my introverted temperament.
Typically it takes introverts longer to assimilate into a new culture. Full immersion is usually not the key to fluency for us introverts.
Tip #5: Celebrate the Strengths of the Introverted
Yes. Extroversion can make expatriation easier. But introversion is not something that needs to be hidden, changed or cured. Introverts interact with the world and people in their own unique ways.
If we put on our “extroverted” facades, we will become emotionally drained. We will not be successful if we believe our temperaments prevent us from being “good” expats. Instead, we need to celebrate the uniqueness of introversion. We introverts can thrive while living abroad.
I still struggle to speak my second language. I still escape to the kitchen during parties. I still get easily overstimulated. But as I’ve begun to embrace my introversion, I’ve become more energized. Since I’ve scheduled regular cave-times, I’m engaging with others in life-giving ways. My confidence has grown as I’ve discovered the quiet ways introverts can connect, influence and learn.
We may not be extroverts. But by acknowledging our introversion and drawing from our natural strengths, we can still succeed cross-culturally.
[Photography by Sydney Murray]
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