How to be a quiet guy in a world of extroverts
July 11, 2010 6:24 AM   Subscribe

Introversion: it's always made my personal life difficult and now I'm worried it might cost me my job too! I need tips on how to stop retreating into my shell before this gets any worse.

Habitual quiet guy here, late 20s who's been an introvert his entire life. I have a lot of theories on why that I won't go into here, just suffice to say that environmental factors taught me to become independent and self-reliant from an early age, habits that I have carried throughout my life thus far. While it's always been a stumbling block, at this point in my life I've learned to put up with being the wallflower who rarely gets noticed and have picked up the habit of getting lost in thought and being comfortable keeping myself company.

The issue? My current job (teaching) requires an almost ridiculous degree of extroversion, making work quite challenging - not to mention exhausting! The breaking point was this past week, when my boss basically said (to his credit, it was in the nicest possible terms!) that my less-than-exciting demeanor is scaring away students and I need to do what I can to address this. The same demeanor seems to also be hurting my relationships with my co-workers, which only makes things worse.

I took this job for financial reasons, but I know now that teaching is not what I should be doing with my life in the long term. While I love LOVE my students and really get a kick out of seeing them have an "aha!" moment, I sometimes "clam up" during class when I'm confused, stressed, or just trying to figure out something (which makes me look really, really bad in the eyes of my students and my boss), I don't really know or care about the subject matter (English as a Second Language - yes, I'm yet another Westerner working overseas as an English teacher) and ultimately I just don't think this is a valid career option for introverts like myself. I'm pursuing other career possibilities, but for the short term I really need to make this job work until I can figure out something better.

I also think overcoming the burden of quietness would help me acclimate better to my current surroundings. While I made rather significant efforts to meet other people when I first moved here, various factors made that rather difficult and have left me friendless. The result is that I've basically retreated into my shell again and am no longer really trying to reach out and make connections with anyone in my spare time (which leaves me unhappy, only making my situation at work that much worse). I think if I would stop doing this and really WANT to and TRY to connect with other people (or God forbid, actually make some friends), I would have a far easier time living here.

So how do I break my old habits? Therapy is a rather obvious solution, but low-cost options seem to be non-existent in this country and the cheapest English-language therapist I can find in the area charges over $100 USD/hour. My insurance won't cover therapy and I definitely don't have the means to spend that kind of money out-of-pocket on an ongoing basis.

Perhaps some other solution? Maybe there's some sort of way that I can "fake it till I make it" - that is, just get into the right mindset to avoid the trap of quietness?
posted by photo guy to Human Relations (19 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Even before you said, "fake it til you make it", I was going to encourage you to treat teaching as an acting job, i.e. act like the teacher you think your students/boss need you to be for those short teaching period bursts. This won't deal with the fact that you'll still find it draining, though, if you're a true introvert.

Cognitive behavioral exercises (you can do on your own) might address any underlying beliefs complicating the issue.
posted by availablelight at 6:33 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm with availablelight on this one, and I can certainly sympathize with you. I'm an introvert in an ESL teaching job too (in Japan), and I basically created a character from day one. While I don't go for the maxi-zoom-Genki that other teachers aspire to, I basically thought, "What if I was an extrovert?" and worked on that character. It certainly wasn't easy, especially on those days when I just wasn't feeling it, or when the pressure got high, but I managed. Now it's pretty well automatic.

As for my co-workers, they figured out that I wasn't being a jerk when I declined dinner invites and things - I told them straight out that dealing with students pretty much took up all the energy reserves I had, and that I wouldn't be good company. I was lucky to have people who understood.

Ultimately, I knew that a certain level of extroversion, real or fake, was what the job required, so I knew I had to get it from somewhere if I wanted to do my job well.
posted by MShades at 6:59 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ok. my wife is / has been a serious introvert, and we have been discussing this issue a lot. She assumed that I am and have been an extrovert all my life, as it seems relatively easy for me to deal with people.

Still, I have consciously worked to create habits that allow me to meet people and create social relationships. She has noticed that working with that issue is like working with any other personality related issue — it takes time and effort but it's possible. My experiences:

1) Force yourself to truly interact with people everyday – not only once a week for 8 hours but rather everyday a little bit. You won't like it, but it does not matter. Learn to give and take: Create interest in other people's lives: enjoy what you can learn from those people (those "aha moments" again), and tell those people about your stuff. I am not talking about personal secrets, but everyday things like:

- I am about to buy an I-pod, how do you like yours?
- I found a new cafe offering the best chai latte in the world.
- Have any of you students tried the new roller-coaster of the local amusement park? How is it?
- I hate these local beers, what do you drink?

2) Start organizing INFORMAL social events YOURSELF: If you like opera, ask people to go to opera with you. Majority of people will say "no", but some who share your interest will participate. Don't assume anything else:

- You would go to opera anyway, and thus
- it's not your problem if those people like it or not, or
- if they would / would not want to go another time with you.

Once you go to opera with somebody, enjoy the moment, and of course you are supposed to socialize again (which you don't need to like...)

3) Participate: People are busy, and most people don't have time to gauge your interest in participation. Thus, be active: resist your temptation to a) spend your free time alone at home, b) to not interact at your job. If you are organizing things for other people, at least some will ask you to join their stuff later on. True friends are scarce, thus don't be disappointed with that 99% who never ask you...

If you DO those things, you will change your social habits which means you become more extrovert and personable. Gradually, you get more comfortable with that sort of behavior and most likely will like it more too.


- Change is also about the other people around you. They will be surprised when you start behaving differently. Thus, allow them to be confused, and also meet completely new people with whom you can have a fresh start, and who will get to know you as an extrovert...

- It will take time. Behave like that for a year minimum, and recognize that the results will be small and gradual :)

- You have an excellent opportunity to learn social interaction at your job, as teaching means interacting, which means you have tons of opportunities around you, and as your students change all the time, which means, you will have opportunities for new fresh starts all the time.

You can make it by the time. You know your problem, which is a big thing, so just don't freak about it. Wishing the best.

posted by Doggiebreath at 7:03 AM on July 11, 2010 [19 favorites]

From one introvert to another: you MUST get out everyday and interact with people. I find that I regress into anxiety and shyness if I don't get out enough. Go to cultural events, do some volunteer work, pick up some shifts at a restaurant (seriously, working as a waiter helped me learn to talk to strangers) and just go where there are people and chit chat with them. Plan outings for yourself so you aren't always sitting around at home alone when you aren't working. You don't need a companion to a play or concert. Then when it is over, you can retreat back to your home and enjoy your own company. As an advantage, going and doing stuff gives you something to talk about with your co-workers.

As far as work goes, I once got some good advice from a former boss (also an introvert). He was a researcher who taught a class once in awhile and was always getting asked to do speaking events. These were not his favorite things to do. He told me that when he stepped in front of an audience or a class, that he would start "playing the part" of a teacher or speaker. He said that he pretended that he was an actor in a play and it was his job to put on a good show. This totally worked for him and he was extremely respected in his field and adored by his students.

Other things that have helped me: be curious about your co-workers and peers. Make it your job to find out more about who they are and what their lives are like. Then really pay attention when they tell you things. Become a good listener. Smile, even if you have to fake it. Most people will not know the difference. Make eye contact when people are talking to you. It's preferable to become a pleasant man or woman of few words than to be painfully shy.

A book you might like: The Loner's Manifesto by Anneli Rufus.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:28 AM on July 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, I feel you. I am an introvert, taught overseas, and got similar feedback about my teaching ("not exciting enough"). Part of the problem could be that (at least if you are in China, and probably some other countries) the expectation is that your classes will be fun, lively, and you as a Westerner will sort of be expected to act clown-like, singing and dancing (especially if the students are kids).These are kind of unrealistic expectations so don't let the criticism hurt your feelings too much. A lot of ESL teachers are bombarded with requests to basically perform and "have fun" with students.

You sound like a caring and patient person. THose are valuable traits in a teacher- not everyone can perform in front of a classroom. There are usually plenty of ESL jobs available (again, I'm assuming you are in Asia because chances are you probably are?). You might consider doing one-on-one tutoring, or teaching older students, who may be more serious-minded. I also found that when I taught students on scholarship, not from large cities, I was much more appreciated for my personality and patience- in markets in large cities, where English teaching is a business, some students exect fast-paced and exciting teaching without necessarily paying attention to substance.

Lastly, don't be too hard on yourself for being introverted. It's an orientation, not a disease. If the world only consisted of extroverts, itd be a pretty scary place....think about it.
posted by bearette at 7:50 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think one of the things that might be holding you back is looking at the end goal as being more extroverted, and because of the overwhelming difficulty of accomplishing a vague, large task like that, it's hard to know where to start.

Here's a start, a small thing you can do to get on the road to developing the skills of an extrovert; find one person you're friendly/acquainted with in your work/personal life and invite them to coffee. At the end of coffee, suggest you do it again. Now, make a pact to:

a) follow through on that suggestion, and;
b) invite another acquaintance to do the same.

These are small things that get you down the slow road to getting over being an introvert. Make sure every few days/week you accomplish a task that's related to being an extrovert (going to a bar/club alone and meeting people; asking people at work if they want to do a group activity/etc.) You'll find that it seeps into your whole life, once you start accomplishing small tasks. Good luck!
posted by Hiker at 7:56 AM on July 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, keep them coming!

@Mshades - Really, really glad to see I'm not the only introvert in the Asian ESL industry! Part of my challenge has been trying to get my coworkers to understand. They're extremely friendly, but are all extreme extroverts and seem utterly perplexed by my quiet ways. They just keep comparing me to my predecessor - an extremely outgoing uber-genki walking ESL stereotype who the kids and teachers absolutely adored.

@bearette - Thanks so much for the compliments :) I am in Asia - I actually teach and live in Seoul, South Korea at the moment. I teach elementary and while I'm okay with the age range for now, I would much rather be teaching high school or university students. Still, I probably shouldn't complain - my school has treated me well, and this certainly beats unemployment.

Hm..maybe bearette, Mshades, and myself should be forming some sort of introverted ESL teacher support group...

@pluckysparrow - Fantastic suggestions, but part of my issue is being an expat, plus the omnipresent language barrier. There's a reason why expats tend to hang out in their own little groups - befriending the locals is very hard when you're an outsider, even worse when you're having difficulty speaking the language.

Unfortunately, I have no ongoing interactions with other foreigners, despite my efforts online via sites like Courchsurfing and Meetup which always worked so well for me in the U.S. I'd love to meet more locals, but I'm not having much luck - occasionally I'll meet someone curious who wants to practice their English, but they never seem to want to actually stay in contact and form an ongoing friendship. Go figure...
posted by photo guy at 8:12 AM on July 11, 2010

I'm not an introvert (IANAI?), but have lived with one and have a background in personality psychology. Just like most people say above, you can learn how to be outgoing and gregarious by leaving your comfort zone for a bit and forcing yourself to interact with others. This will, however, probably be psychologically draining so you might want to create a "restorative niche" where you can recharge your batteries. For example, an introverted professor I knew use to lock himself into his office after he lectured. If you don't have a restorative niche in your life, you might end up extroverted, miserable, and exhausted.

Good luck!
posted by eisenkr at 8:54 AM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite] you might want to create a "restorative niche" where you can recharge your batteries

Very, VERY important in the "fake until you make it" world. IMO

If I didn't have a place to go to I would never be able to fake it at all. Most of my friends (and even my family - go figure) have no idea that I'm an introvert. The think I'm an outgoing person who likes to socialize and can talk to anyone.


But I've been faking it for a looonnnnggg time. Mostly because of my kids, they needed social outlets, so I had to take them to where the people were. I plastered on a smile and an outgoing personality and eventually, it stuck. So now I'm an introvert within and an extrovert without... However! I need my quiet space and my quiet time, or I will literally break from the strain. Doesn't have to be every day, but when I'm feeling the pressure of all that smiling and nodding, then yes, give me my space and leave me alone.
posted by patheral at 9:32 AM on July 11, 2010

As an introvert who has successfully done a training gig (training both "the masses" and classes full of people who could have me fired in 5 minutes), I say: you're too nervous about what you look like.

The two-part solution is: 1) More preparation. Seriously, more. Practice your lesson until you want to vomit. If you know your lesson plan so well that you're not worried about it (is it too short? too long? too boring? too difficult?) you will be able to be more perceptive to your students, wing it a bit, go off on a quick tangent, make jokes, etc. 2) Don't care so much about being perfect. When was the last person fired for being a shitty teacher? Are you that bad? I didn't think so. Attempt continuous improvement, but don't stress out about it.

Both of those thing will lead to being more relaxed during class, and that makes a huge difference on you not seeming like an apathetic robot. You're an introvert, and you can't change that, but you can be an interactive, interesting introvert if you relax a little bit. (You'll still need "me" time at the end of the day to recover.)
posted by ctmf at 11:05 AM on July 11, 2010

Sometimes it's easy to let troubles like this seem insurmountable. I was crippled by a general anxiety when I couldn't find my place in an aggressive schoolyard dynamic that had developed at work. I was a quiet introvert and it felt shameful. I was able to turn it around when someone gave me some simple advice about taking notes during any interactions. It was a small thing that made all the difference because it made others feel more guarded in their behavior and less inclined to run roughshod over me. I was still an introvert but I didn't feel like a total failure anymore.

Is there anyone there that you'd feel able to ask to monitor one of your lessons and give you some specific pointers or suggest fun classroom exercises?
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:32 AM on July 11, 2010

My job too requires developing a good "smoke and mirrors" routine, as I call it. Finding a sanctuary where you can recharge is really important. Also nthing Annelli Rufus - a heroine for us introvers and shy people!

One book I've found to be really helpful is Acting Techniques for Everyday Life by Jane Marla Robbins. Reading up on acting and improv techniques in general may help you.
posted by Anima Mundi at 1:07 PM on July 11, 2010

posted by Anima Mundi at 1:07 PM on July 11, 2010

I second Pluckysparrow. Unfortunately this answer has to be hasty.

I am a playwright and a male escort. I have also worked in advertising, an industry which requires much self-negation ('being positive'). Despite the financial hardship it has brought, this is one reason I stopped writing for the advertising industry. I have helplessly spent much of my adult life considering the issue of introversion; or simply how to relate to both myself and others.

I believe it's not simply a question of replacing your introversion with something more suited to your environment. This action implies that your environment is more important than yourself. This self-negation will lead to an increased feeling of alienation; it is a short-sighted solution, driven by a motivation that suggests a dismal future. If you are introverted and believe you have always been introverted, the thorough exploration and acceptance of this as a relative, arbitrary state will allow for potential flexibility and integration with yourself. This will help generate decent rapport with an environment which only exists because of you.

In practical terms, I strongly recommend you have a look at Impro by Keith Johnstone. It is the culmination of 30 years in experimental theatre and intended for theatre practitioners. It has four sections which, in essence, explore the relationship individuals have between their own mental processes and each other: how these are mastered at an early age and assumed to be innate personalities, what the maintenance of these actually involves, how the transformation of maintenance to acceptance leads to interpersonal dexterity. It is full of exercises and examples. The fundamental principle of the book is the acceptance of impulses; the acceptance of the self.

At this point, I believe that self-acceptance leads to charisma, even if it is not a conventional charisma, it is yours, and people will like it. Developing a catalogue of 'charismatic traits' leads to the flimsy cheese of NLP gurus from LA.

There is a film called My Dinner With Andre which you might find offers some relief.

Samuel Beckett taught in France after he finished at Trinity in Dublin. He was extremely introverted and difficult; he hated the world (himself) and his pupils didn't much know what to make of him. There is a book called 'Beckett before Beckett' which has a good portrait of this period. He subsequently had a breakdown and underwent intensive psychoanalysis, three times a week for a 3 years, living alone in London in the 1930's. There is a book called 'Damned to Fame' which explores what happened to him during this period.

Have a look at 'notes from the underground history of american education' by John Taylor Gatto, I found that useful for understanding the astonishing privations of school. I think it's available online, and it's well worth a read.

From 'Guy Debord', by Andy Merrifield, a good little book:

'In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx tried to affirm the primacy of free-conscious activity in the species character of human beings. He said that humans are endowed with vital powers, capacities and drives, and are not merely contemplative, one-sided beings. We come to know ourselves, not by turning inward contemplatively, but by reaching out and feeling, seeing and comprehending the external world around us, the world outside our mind. Through practice, humans refashion external nature at the same time as they refashion their own internal nature. Humans are protean beings, desiring differentiated practice, needing meaningful and fulfilling activity. Cut this off, convert it into a dread zone of necessity, and our essential powers are henceforth alienated.'

A direct question, sorry to be crass - what on earth are you doing teaching in China?

"I'm pursuing other career possibilities, but for the short term I really need to make this job work until I can figure out something better"

This sounds quite thoughtful, but why not bite the bullet, come home, have a good breakdown, hunt out a good therapist, start trusting yourself, thus build up a life which is sturdy and fulfilling?
posted by King_Wang at 2:40 PM on July 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Find balance: I'm a lifelong introvert doing ESL, and before and after class I take time to stress (before) & process (after). My GF doesn't try to talk to me directly after school, because she knows I do it. I walk for about 30min, but the specifics aren't important.

Switch it on: My catchphrase is "showtime!" just before I walk confidently into the room. It means I am now in professional extrovert mode for the duration. It's daft, but it works for me.

Channel an extrovert: Especially if you know a particularly good teacher, make notes on what they are saying or doing that is effective. Get technical, treat it as a hardcore observation task. Copy them, at first even verbatim if it makes you more comfortable. You will naturally start to improvise later. Or you can just mentally picture your most extroverted friend.

What you said about being confused and clamming up - it's not a sin, and it can even be good for students to see you think. "Hmm... That's a very good question! Let's see..." followed by working it through out loud. Or indeed - "That's a complicated question and I want to give you a good answer, so we'll look at it next lesson". The world will not end!

Once you get the hang of it, remember to give yourself credit for doing it, and enjoy it. While you're getting the hang of it, remember not to be too hard on yourself.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:02 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @King_Wang:
A direct question, sorry to be crass - what on earth are you doing teaching in China?
Um...I'm in Korea, not China and while I wanted to give teaching a shot, it was ultimately the money that brought me here. As anybody who has job-hunted in the U.S. can attest, it's every bit as bad (if not worse) than the news makes it sound. Things here would have to be very dire indeed before you could get me to return to that kind of job market.

@Wrinkled Stumpskin: The out loud thinking is a good idea. I don't do that naturally, so I think my students just don't know that I'm thinking when I'm quiet.

On a related note, can anybody here (particularly expats) offer suggestions on meeting people as an expat in a foreign country? I think I mentioned this in my earlier comment - a lot of the issues I'm having I believe stem from my general day-to-day isolation, but meeting new people here has proven to be quite the challenge. I would really welcome any suggestions on this!
posted by photo guy at 5:04 PM on July 11, 2010

Extreme introvert here. I do the "showtime" thing. People think I am great and outgoing. It is all a show. For example, our college does a booth at the county fair. We are all expected to go and smooze and draw people in. I usually get a prop, last year it was a ring that lit up, a big bowl of candy, and a sparkly necklace. Then I put on a show for 2 hours. I do the same thing when I teach a class. It is exhausting. Most of my job suits me fine, since I am not in the spotlight and rarely deal with others. Those times that I do have to go out and about, I treat it like a play and I am determined to have fun and to entertain others. Quite honestly, I would prefer not to do this, but since it is an expectation of my job, and I love my job, I do it. I have a friend who makes goodies for his class, it breaks the ice and makes everyone happy. He is Indian and brings in Indian specialties. The students love it and it makes him feel comfortable.
posted by fifilaru at 5:20 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, introverted ESL teacher joining the pile on. Nthing the others in saying that treating it as a fake it til you make it scenario, and observing the classes of teachers you admire.

Also, treat teaching as a skill to hone was helpful for me in overcoming my introversion. For me at least some of the problems with being introverted in class were with being too afraid to look silly, to make a mistake and expose myself to the scrutiny of my colleagues. Feeling like that though is an easy recipe for the yips. You're a student of teaching, so to speak, and your colleagues, students and your own intuition are your teachers. Be easy on yourself as a beginner, but take pride in making incremental improvements in your craft - and part of the craft is learning how to handle yourself when you feel flustered. After class, take stock on what went well, and why, and prior take a moment to visualise how you want the class to go. When you do this be gentle on yourself, the goal is to look on your work with empathy for yourself and your human frailty, not beat yourself up for every tiny mistake.

And about mistakes - I used to get all flustered, and beat myself up afterwards if I made a mistake. One thing I learnt from a colleague is to make a joke out of it when you slip up. And by a joke, I'm not talking anything sophisticated here, especially when your students are young children. Say if you drop something, make a dumb dumb face, or if you blurt the wrong thing, make a funny noise. It works because they're taking their cue from you, if you look tense when you make a mistake, then ohnoes. If you take it in stride, then you'll get a laugh out of the kids, and the kids will know it's not Serious Business when the teacher makes a mistake. Laugh and move on.
posted by ultrabuff at 9:58 PM on July 11, 2010

I'll speak from personal experience on this whole introversion thing: it really sucks sometimes! I don't believe there's anything wrong with it, it just has a tendency to make life difficult. For me it leads to feelings of being trapped within myself. I've definitely not solved the problem, but I've noticed a few things about it.

Again, from my own experience, may not add up for you the same way, but I hope you can see similarities to your situation. I notice a couple of things about my difficulty socializing. First, it seems like certain things can happen (whether initiated by me or something/someone else) that can have a significant impact on how comfortable I am with talking to people and making friends. I can go from shy to outgoing within a few minutes, or from day to day for that matter, because of how much sleep I've been getting, or how much unexpected crap has happened during the day, or of course how much alcohol I've consumed (not great examples, but you get the idea). I would suggest thinking about or observing what changes your attitude and comfort level when it comes to socializing. Maybe identifying some things that you think will help the situation, and some things that you know will make it worse. Things you can control of course.

Second, about the "fake it till I make it" mentality. I'll mention my experience, hopefully you can identify with this a bit. I've done this (faking it) for a long time and I'm still not sure what my results really are. On one hand, it does seem like if I force myself out of my shell a little bit, things begin to come more easily, and I can snowball into a much more comfortable situation for myself. It really works. On the other hand, it doesn't last for me. I do eventually recede into my shell again in response to something that happens. An uncomfortable situation perhaps, feeling embarrassed about something I said, or maybe getting some idea that I'm not well liked and that people are faking it with me as well. It can be tough for me to come off as a sociable person if I feel like everyone else is putting on a similar facade (or that perhaps mine is not fooling others well enough).

So, my guess (since I haven't completely gotten over it) is that the trick is learning to keep yourself in that more comfortable, sociable state for as long as you can without draining your batteries. That is of course, assuming you've achieved the snowball. Maintaining happy talkativeness involves training myself not to assume things about what other people think of me. It also involves, of course, getting more comfortable with myself so I don't feel like I'm faking things (interest, smiles, agreement, etc.), which does only seem to come with practice.

I'm sure most of that was already mentioned to you several times before, but I hope there's something that can improve your perspective. Anyway, good luck. :)
posted by Anthony84 at 3:16 AM on July 12, 2010

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