Growing up as a first generation Asian American in a society where personality traits such as outspokenness, charisma, and spontaneity help you climb the ladder of social success was imaginably very conflicting. On one end, your parents always taught you to listen to others, do not disrupt, speak when spoken to, and think about your words or actions before you say or do them. In school, the measure of your popularity and aptitude was weighted mostly on how well you were able to assert your merit… vocally. What do you do when the expectations between your heritage and society come face to face? The answer was quite simple for young, quiet, and shy me – you struggle.
Introversion is inherent in Asian cultures as it reflects the community-centric values ingrained in our past. What I mean is that people from Asian countries focus more on the well-being of their community (e.g. family, religious group) and tend to care more about the implications of their words or actions on the people around them. We care more about what people think, so we say less as a defense. In America, life is more so about the individual and his or her pursuit of happiness, most often times irregardless of how it comes off to other people. In short, Americans “do” them, and they do it assertively. So when you think about this and apply it to a social setting such as school or work, Asians tend to be listeners rather than vocalists, conformists rather than renegades, and laborers rather than leaders. As Asian Americans, we are born with “Asian” traits and are forced to adopt “American” traits, which appear to be essential for getting anywhere in the post-high school world. Admittedly, this is wasn’t easy for me and is something I still struggle with at work to this very day.
I’ve come to realized that you’ve got to put on the extrovert facade or “flip the ‘On’ switch” in situations that demand you to prove your worth in American life. (Some may argue that this is unfair or burdening, but when life gives you lemons, you either make the best of it or move somewhere where they don’t exist.) In college classes, job interviews, and work meetings, your likability is highly dependently on your ability to be outspoken, respectfully defiant, and charismatic and these traits aren’t necessarily ones that I was born with. But like with everything, practice makes perfect and practice is what I’ve done for the past 25 years of my life. The good thing about being an introvert in a society that demands the frills of extroversion is that you’re good at observation. You can observe what other people like and dislike about the way you carry yourself and reflect on ways to improve your interpersonal relationships.
Throughout the years, I trial-and-errored a couple of social images – the quiet nerd, the awkward nonconformist, and the passive socialite – each of which had its own little quirks. Today, I consider myself the extroverted introvert. Seemingly contradictory, I define it as exhibiting the qualities of an extrovert in social settings, but allowing myself to recharge as an introvert in the comforts of my home or a group of close friends. Being selectively extroverted enables me to reap the benefits of social acceptance while still allowing me to “indulge” in, say, a quiet night with a cup of tea and a good non-fiction book. While I won’t go into detail in how I was able to “create” this personality, I will say the the ebbs and flows of my social interactions over the year have helped me understand what works best for me and what makes me happy… and honestly, the more I force myself to adopt extroverted traits, the more I enjoy what comes out of it – the thrill of new friends, new travels, and endless adventures.
The point of this post is not to say that you have to become an extrovert to succeed in life. Rather, it is an observation that while the extrovert personality prevails in America, the introspective, analytical, and adaptable “race” of introverts will not go extinct any time soon. In fact, I think introversion will thrive so long as we understand how to utilize its strengths to overpower its weaknesses.
Inspired by the book Quiet by Susan Cain. Recommended read, especially for those interested in psychological non-fiction.