I traveled to Senegal last March for my thesis project. I traveled with a classmate I did not know prior the project.
It was a difficult trip, probably for both us but I’m going to talk about why it was difficult for her.
Over the course of our project, which spanned 9 months, I came to know Olivia* as being largely extroverted. When I learned we would be travel partners, I wasn’t immediately concerned. In fact, I was relieved. Save one other team member, I was very happy that she and I had been selected to travel to Senegal. Once we arrived in Senegal, these sentiments quickly changed. Her extroversion ‘clashed’ with my introversion.
Whereas she would ask very detailed questions (unrelated to the project) about people’s lives with white, invasive curiosity, I would put my hand out as I gently beckoned a child towards me or go sit by the female head of household and observe, impressed with her command of a household that could sometimes hold more than 20 members.
After a long day in a remote area, should we have returned to Dakar, I wanted to sit in the hotel lobby and stare out at the beach-and recover. Olivia wanted to explore and attend live music concerts.
To be fair to her, this was her first time in West Africa. It was not my first; although there were differences compared Ghanaian and Togolese cultures and ways of life, these differences did not feel stark. In a way, I felt at home. But for Olivia, this comfort and my desire for solitude (despite being) in this exotic and beautiful country was perceived as distant and generally unenthusiastic.
I was actually ecstatic to be in Senegal. I was looking forward to experiencing this particular West African culture, laced with French perspectives. It was interesting for me to observe the incongruity of this imposed relationship and I was eager to understand the repercussions of it.
I ended up suffering for this. Olivia reported to our Adviser, that I had not ‘adequately contributed ‘ to the project. I can tell you all the ways in which I did contribute and guide the goals of the project-Olivia’s enthusiasm frequently took us off course. But this is not necessary because Olivia’s complaint had nothing to do with my work ethic and everything to do with my personality.
My friends describe it as ‘resting bitch face’. This points to my ability to be expressionless in a point in time yet, later describe how happy,excited or impressed I was at said time. I understand; more often that not introversion is perceived as a deficiency. But I don’t lack social skills, I don’t like being lonely, but I do appreciate (and need) solitude. These traits aren’t always welcomed in a society that demands you make yourself known at all times.
I have committed to reading a new book every month. For February, I selected Introvert Power: Why your Inner Strength is your Inner Power. I have been motivated by Helgoe’s unapologetic description of introversion. Her description of her introversion, precise and inclusive, has begun to foster a better understand of myself and social situations . In fact, her contents page alone had me feeling like she was in my head.
Introversion is largely perceived to be a deficit or coming from a place of deep pain, depression or anxiety. It is only a coincidence that I have experienced all the above. What might comes as surprise is that I have also relied on introversion to remove me from these dark places.
In the past, I have readily apologized for myself and labeled myself to sooth other people’s fears and discomfort. Now, I think I about the ways in which I could have made Olivia feel more comfortable around me but to do so would have been apologetic: Sorry for the way I am, here is a list of ways to successfully navigate the glacier that is me, see below–literally.
Given the brevity of our work together and no detected desire to develop this partnership into a friendship on either part, it’s true that I did not feel any obligation to ‘help her understand me’. What would be generally helpful, is a social shift in our understanding of personality traits. We might also want to consider breaking assumed links between extroversion and success.
So far in my reading, Helgoe has made two important points. The first is that introverts are not in the minority: we actually make up 57% of the population according to large-scale population study. The second point is that no one is either an introvert or a extrovert.
I suspect that her book will inspire a few more posts on introversion. So happy reading to the both us!