You don’t have to be an extrovert to experience the adventure and excitement of living abroad.
Living abroad sounds so glamorous — a life filled with exciting new places, cultures, and foods. In reality, though, getting settled in a new country, especially as an introvert, comes with its own ups and downs, just like any other living situation.
As someone who has lived abroad for most of my adult life, including the last seven years in Belgium, these are some of the challenges I’ve encountered — and how I’ve learned to thrive despite them.
4 Challenges of Living Abroad as an Introvert — And How to Overcome Them
1. Small talk with strangers is draining enough in English, but attempting to do it in a new language…?
This one is an energy-killer for me. While I am never going to be the type of person who easily picks up a new language, being an introvert makes learning a new language extra challenging.
Yes, I know that one of the best ways to learn is to practice speaking, yet small talk with strangers is draining enough in English; attempting to do it in French can easily drain me for the day.
And language classes seem to be designed to torture us introverts, with mandatory introductions and required speaking about yourself. Combine this with my social anxiety, and the inner critic that usually silences my attempt to speak French, and it is no wonder after seven years in Belgium I still have only basic French skills!
My advice? Start small. Look for small-group language classes or even a one-on-one tutor. You can also attend language exchange Meetup groups to practice the language in an informal setting. Plus, this is a great way to make new friends.
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2. Cultural differences make me more nervous around people. Am I doing something wrong?
Besides being an introvert, I also struggle with social anxiety. I can spend hours after a social interaction replaying the entire episode and beating myself up for everything I said that I am sure was just awful.
Communicating with someone from a different culture can enhance all of these feelings. As an American, I tend to smile at people I pass on the street, and certainly if I am near them in a space like a bus or restaurant.
Belgians don’t do this. While many other cultures tend to be more blunt than Americans, I’ve been surprised with the critiques I’ve received in Belgium about how I am dressed or how my child behaves.
If you, like me, already internally critique yourself, this can feel quite brutal. It has taken me years in a community filled with individuals from all over Europe to internalize that much of this behavior is cultural and shouldn’t be taken personally. One of the best parts of this diversity has been learning that there are whole countries of introverts!
Having lived in the heart of Europe for nearly a decade, I’ve discovered that, to some people, I am the extrovert! There are entire countries of introverts, where culturally people tend to be more withdrawn and enjoy quiet and solitude. Nordic countries, such as Finland, are prime examples of this culture.
I always love this reminder — that praise and the valuing of the “extrovert ideal” is nothing more than a cultural construct.
Before you move to your desired country, or visit one, do your research. Read guidebooks and local blogs, attend local events (like through the aforementioned Meetup groups or expat-specific ones), talk to locals, and do whatever it takes to get the lay of the land, metaphorically, before you get to the land. Then acclimate accordingly.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.
3. Moving to a new place means making new friends.
Being an introvert does not mean I don’t want friends; social support is as important to introverts as it is to extroverts. But — making friends as an introvert does happen to be more challenging.
After all, it often involves many “triggers” for an introvert, such as small talk, attending parties (and other social events), and reaching out to make (and keep) plans.
Unfortunately, when you move to a new country, this usually means leaving your existing friendship circle behind and having to create a new one. This is compounded by being part of an expat community that is often transient, with people staying for just a few years (or months). In other words, even if I stay put in my new country, my new friends may leave.
Fortunately, however, introverts can use the same tools to make friends abroad as they would use in their home country. It often also comes with a pre-made community. When I lived in Thailand as a recent college graduate, I arrived to a wonderful group of expats working in public health from all over the world, from Zimbabwe to Denmark! We already had our professional interests and expat status in common, which helped a lot. And, I am still friends with many members of that circle — and even married one of them!
Like I mentioned above, you can make friends through Meetup groups (expat ones or whatever activities interest you), language classes, or by participating in local events. Yes, it may involve some small talk, but we introverts are great at turning that into deep talk!
4. Returning home can be an introvert’s nightmare, because I have to fit a year’s worth of social engagements into a short trip.
I love going back to the U.S. to visit my family and friends — but there is no denying that it can be a complete social overload. In addition to the usual reverse culture shock I often feel, it’s like I have to have a year’s worth of social engagements in two weeks. There are friends to catch up with and relatives to see. New significant others and babies to meet. I know if I skip seeing someone, I may not see them for a year, or even more.
I have found ways to combat this overwhelm and social overload. Now that I have been doing this for many years (including six as a parent), I prepare myself ahead of time. For example: I remind myself the trip will only be a few weeks long; I organize group events to bring multiple friend groups or relatives together (plus, seeing more people in one day or evening means I can take the next day for myself); I remind myself how grateful and lucky I am to have so many people who love me and want to spend time with me; and, after the trip, I schedule time some much-needed downtime and solitude.
Enjoy the Perks That Come With Living Abroad as an Introvert
One of the best perks of being an expat is getting to travel around the country you are living in. Travel, when done right, can be an introvert’s dream. You can melt into a place without having to talk to anyone but your travel companions.
And if you are traveling solo, you have the additional perk of getting to enjoy quiet plane and train rides, as well as the solitude of solo meals and coffees. Instead of gravitating toward crowded touristy destinations, introverts are more likely to seek the solitude of sites off the beaten path, which often makes for the best sort of trips.
No matter what your personality is, expat life can be challenging. Although being an introvert makes aspects of it particularly challenging, it also comes with special skills. Introverts have many of the skills that will help them cope with culture shock, including taking time to create a comfortable home and seeking quiet solitude. Introversion is no reason not to seek the adventure of moving abroad and can make for a great advantage in expat life.
You might like:
- How to Get Settled in a New Country as an Introvert
- 9 Ways to Adjust When You Move to a New Country as a Highly Sensitive Introvert
- An Introvert’s Guide to Thriving: Simple Life Hacks to Avoid Feeling Overwhelmed
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