Extrovert Malfunction in Foreign Societies

Extroverts are extremely specialized and well adapted to the standards of their society.  They are so attached to their ways that encountering other customs and world views is extremely uncomfortable for them.
To see a Western extrovert in a foreign country reveals an important principle:
An expert in one society is hopelessly inept in another.  When their main area of expertise becomes useless, they are crippled.  Their reaction is usually one of frustration and denial.

In college, I studied abroad for a time in South America.  I was one of a group of fellow Americans.  We each were assigned to a family but attended all the same classes and a number of mandatory activities.

For most of them, the trip was fraught with social difficulties.  Their usual assertive behavior made for tough relations with their host families.  Some of them quickly got changed to another family which they didn’t like any better than the last.  They complained about the matter, never considering that perhaps they ought to adapt and accept rather than object.

The girls in this group insisted on wearing short shorts and spaghetti straps on the streets, yet were outraged when every time they constantly received wolf whistles and other unwelcome attention.  Instead of adapting, they continued to act as before while complaining bitterly and making pronouncements about how people in that country should behave.  All they had to do was dress a little more modestly like the locals and their problem would have been solved.

Most of the Americans in my group reacted negatively to the local culture and spent all their time in each other’s company.  In months of living there, some of them barely left with any more Spanish than they came with.

My brother when studying in Latin America had an embarrassing experience with a socialite girl in his group of students.  She went up to a local and told him in broken Spanish “you must not smoke.”  Needless to say, her presumptuous demand was ignored.

The common pattern exhibited here is that many extroverts are quite simply unable to acknowledge that there is more than one Correct way for a social environment to function.  The obvious refutation of millions of people living by another standard is an affront to everything they have founded their identity upon and everything they believe in.  It challenges assumptions they were raised with and have accepted without question.  The standard reaction is aggressive denial and an irrational struggle.  To a true introvert, they most resemble toy poodles yapping shrilly at an indifferent and gigantic great dane.  To view their utter impotence is a vindication and a delight.

These extroverts are used to living in a society they feel they belong to and which they feel belongs to them.  At home they are used to having a say in how their society is implemented.  When they arrive in a foreign country, they are quite simply unable to adapt to the fact that they are complete outsiders with no say at all.

As an introvert studying abroad, I found that I had an enormous advantage over the other people in my group.  I had spent all my life in a society that had made me feel an outsider.  To feel that I had no stake or say in the surrounding society seemed for me the most natural impulse in the world.  That I had to adapt to what others were doing, even if I didn’t agree with it, was so obvious it didn’t need thinking.  I did not share that need to judge and attempt to set things into a familiar order.
Consequently, I got along well with my host family and spent my time with them instead of the other American students.  Investing all my time in my host family was richly rewarded.  I had the experience of a lifetime and grew to appreciate another culture.  I allowed myself to see both the advantages and the faults of that particular culture.  In many ways, it was a big improvement over living in the United States.

The whole trip was an affirmation of strength for me as an introvert.  It was an experience in weakness and disorientation for most of the extroverts.
Afterwards I could never forget that those who let society define them are noisy yet insignificant toy poodles if they are simply taken out of their element and placed in another.
I couldn’t help but wonder if being a social minority is an experience more extroverts need to have — that claustrophobic feeling of being crushed under millions of people whose customs and expectations drastically differ from one’s own.

Zygmunt blogs at Kingdom of Introversion (and elsewhere).

Extrovert Malfunction in Foreign Societies appears here by permission.

on 07/11/11 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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