About a year ago Buzzfeed came out with some articles about introverts and extroverts: 27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand and 25 Frustrating Things About Being an Extrovert with a combined viewing of over 11 million people. Needless to say, they were popular articles. They popped up all over my Facebook newsfeed and I may have shared the one about introverts with some comment along the lines of “Right On” or “Now do you understand?” People took sides in their E or I camps; lines were drawn, with each group just wanting to be understood by the other. Then I started to see some backlash (which any popular article on social media will receive), articles saying things like I’m just a normal person. Sometimes I like to be with people; sometimes I like to be alone. Based on the fact that I cannot even find these “backlash” articles and the topic of introversion v. extroversion is still widely discussed, I think it’s clear that this is a topic that hits home for many of us.
Recently a teammate sent me this cartoon:
It resonated with me. I am an introvert. I’ve never felt belittled or passed over because of my introversion. I also don’t feel that introverts are somehow superior to extroverts. They are different. As the cartoon illustrates, they gain their energy in different ways.
As I studied this cartoon and nodded my head in agreement to each new sentence (especially the “hiss” at the extrovert (: ), I realized this is one of the reasons living in Africa is so draining! It was eye opening. Let me re-phrase this slightly. I say Africa, because that is my personal experience but I think I would experience the same difficulty living in any country where I needed to learn a new language. Why?
“Interaction is expensive and they don’t want to spend it on something annoying (read: wasteful)”. Pretty much every interaction when learning a new language is “annoying”; small talk is all you can talk in the beginning. Saying “hello” 30 times in a row and “how are you? I’m fine,” is not the most stimulating of conversations.
This being said, I do think there are special challenges to being an introvert in Africa. Rather than overly generalize, since we all know Africa is not a country, I will specify the problems I have experienced living on Clove Island and Guinea:
Culture dictates saying hello to just about everyone.
On Clove Island, it takes me about 5-10 minutes to walk from my house to the road. I walk through meandering alleyways where children run up and down playing with tin cans and homemade balls, men lounge in windowsills and women lurk in doorways gossiping with one another until I walk by. Conversations are cut short and eyes follow me as I walk by. Some will began a long mantra of greetings, “What’s the news? How is your health? How did you wake up? How are things, etc?” to which the response is always, “Well” or “Good”, no matter the truth of your actual circumstances and health. Politeness prescribes that I ask similar greetings, which I try to do as quickly as possible while not faltering in my brisk walk.
The same was true in Guinea. Except, believe it or not, the greetings went much, much longer. “How are your goats? How are your children? Your husband? Your chickens? Your house? Etc. Etc.” Inane. It got to the point where it would take me half an hour to buy a tomato just 50 yards from my hut.
There is nothing wrong with this. I just don’t like it. If you have a script of what you must ask and I have rote answers and we both know what the other will say, no real information is being transferred, then why have the interaction at all? There is no point aside from cultural dictates. This is energy wasted. I am already tired by the time I get to the road, not even my destination.
Having meaningful conversations cross-culturally is more difficult and more rare.
This was especially true in my small village in Guinea where I had nothing in common with anyone. Really.
What was a 22 year-old privileged white girl who played at living the rural village life supposed to talk about with the 19 year old village girl who was the second wife of a poor farmer, with two children already and no education to speak of. Should we talk about the novel I was reading about 15th century England or maybe the rice with sauce that she was planning on cooking for her family that night?
Instead of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I often decided to remain in my mud hut alone. It was so much easier than expending that energy to try and find something interesting in the conversations around me. As long as I fulfilled the “development” goals of Peace Corps, I was satisfied.
This is less true of Clove Island, for which I am very grateful. One, because I live in an urban context and two, I interact, for the most part, with educated people. They are literate and can speak French. They are more connected with the outside world and we have much more in common, despite our many, many differences.
I also have a greater purpose for living here that involves creating meaningful relationships and relationships come from communication, sometimes even frivolous conversations about the weather and the food that’s being cooked that day. In the five years since I left Guinea, my outlook has been transformed which has, in turn, changed my behavior. But my personality remains largely the same. I must push myself out of my comfort zone. I expend energy on things that I see as “annoying”. And
it’s difficult. My hope is that it will be worth it. That because I took the time to follow cultural guidelines in greetings and because I talked to an islander multiple times about what she ate yesterday and told her what I bought at the market, that eventually she will share more of her life with me. She will tell me her hopes and dreams and I can share mine. We will discuss politics and we can watch movies together. We can read the same books and discuss them. I look forward to the time when each interaction isn’t “annoying”, where it is mutually stimulating.
It’s hard to be an introvert on Clove Island. I don’t think God made a mistake in calling me to work in Africa, though. I don’t think I misheard his direction. My introversion can cause me to clam up and stay in my room all day (sometimes it does). But my introversion plus the love that God has given me for the Clove Island people does not allow me to be satisfied with shallow relationships. I crave depth and meaning in all my interactions so I am not wastefully spending my energy.
This is the gift and curse of introversion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.