• Laura E.P. Sheehan

The Insulated Introvert and the Isolated Extrovert

I was recently conversing with my neighbor, a self-professed introvert. She noted that one of her favorite moments in this expat life are those first few months after a move to a new country. As an introvert, she feels insulated - as if surrounded by a wonderfully protective bubble - when she does not yet know the language and she has no connections outside of her family.


As an (almost extreme) extrovert, I was blown away to learn that introverts may find times of transition so comforting! Those first six months are always the hardest for me. I have such difficulties without my "people" and truly struggle until I find my place in my new community.


This comparison, of course, translates into the realm of career change and job searches. There are numerous resources (including the fantastic book and podcast by Morra Aarons-Mele about the introvert entrepreneur) that address the challenges introverts face when looking for a new job. It is hard for them to put themselves out to the world and to "network" in the traditional sense.


We extroverts face a different but equally debilitating set of challenges in this constantly mobile expat life: isolation and disconnection. Truly, where an introvert relishes the comfort of being home alone, an extrovert's worst nightmare is having to be in solitude for extended periods of time.


Oh, it is so true. I remember the first time I realized how much I needed people in my life. We had just moved to a new country. I spoke the language, but not the local dialect, so even the simplest communication seemed ineffective. Navigating the city on my own was daunting given my gender, diplomatic status, and the political climate...so I stayed home. I was actively job searching but had not yet found any good leads. I did all that I could to busy myself. I unpacked and organized the house, I took on new creative projects. I read.


All in silence and solitude.


One day about two months into our time in our new home, I picked up a book and read it one sitting. I made dinner and then waited for my husband to come home. Traffic was bad (as always) so I waited...and waited...and waited. I think I might have actually been sitting by the door like a puppy poised to pounce on its owner - when my husband finally arrived. As soon as he crossed the threshold, I started talking. I think I chattered on for two hours straight. I re-told the entire book. I provided commentary. He couldn't get a single word in. Oh how good it felt to be talking to someone...even if it was only to retell the story of someone else's written work!


A few months later, though I was getting out of the house more and meeting all the people I could, I was still unemployed and close to friend-less. I was so down and depressed that I was crying every day. I was trying my hardest to get a job, but the timing was off - there were no current vacancies, though there were a few whispers of opportunities to come. So we decided that I would give myself another few months to apply for and land a job. If nothing came through within that time, I would go home and return to my job as a lawyer and we would figure things out from there.


Thankfully, mere days before the date I had set to buy a ticket home, I got a call about a job. I still vividly remember where I was when my little flip phone rang. I had just left the grocery store and was about to drive home. When the call concluded, start date set, I was grinning ear to ear. I turned on my music and I turned it up...loud. Every time I hear that first song that played, I am whisked back in time to that blissful moment of knowing that soon I would have daily, substantive interaction with people once again.


That was but the first of many similar experiences. Every time we move there is an extended period of time - usually months, sometimes longer - when we are trying to find new connections, learn how to communicate in yet another language across another culture. Where introverts feel lovingly embraced, comfortably insulated by a move, extroverts can feel completely unhinged.


How to manage? I used to advise people to say "yes!" to every invitation. In a purely social context, that advice still applies. If, however, you are being asked to volunteer your time, be careful, my fellow extrovert. While it is enticing to hear that you are wanted, needed, an integral part of the whole...when the right opportunity comes along, you might already find yourself accidentally overcommitted. Attempt, if you can, the introvert's approach of being cautiously optimistic and joyfully patient. Your moment will come...in time.



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