I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).
I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”
While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)
Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.
Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.
I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.
A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.
The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.
Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …
Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.
Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.