This may sound hard to believe given the title of this article, which is also ironic considering the points I’m about to make, but I was having a conversation with someone recently. I’ll pause to let that joke sink in for a minute.
He was about to start a job in a new city overseas where he didn’t know anyone, leaving behind all his friends and family and everything familiar; a daunting prospect for anyone. “But I’m pretty sociable,” he said to me, “at least I’m not, like, an introvert.”
“Like me,” I said, grinning.
The thing is, people don’t expect introverts to be travelling alone, working in hospitality in a customer-facing role, making new friends and, well, talking to people, which is exactly what I was doing when I had this conversation. The general perception of introversion seems to be so misconstrued, it’s probably less surprising for people to discover that a lone traveller like me is, in fact, half dolphin. The simple yet ironic explanation for this misunderstanding is that introverts are the quieter percentage of the population and by definition our views and observations and experiences of life aren’t heard as much as our louder compatriots’ viewpoints. No need to grab the pitchforks and your favourite looting shoes yet, though, because, as always, Bella your favourite local friendly tame travelling writer has your back. In this episode of Bella’s examination of life on the road, I selflessly volunteer myself as a spokesperson for my introverted comrades… from my laptop… in my room… alone. I’m telling you, this article is already loaded with more irony than an iron in a cauldron on Mars.
“Well?” I hear you shrieking, “why don’t you tell us what an introvert actually is!” Introverts and extroverts are personality types; kind of like acid and alkaline on the pH scale of human psychology. And, like the pH scale, it is a spectrum; you don’t have to be one or the other, you can exist peacefully somewhere in the middle. Being extroverted simply means that you derive energy from being around people. Introversion is the opposite: this personality recharges by being alone. And that’s the main thing you need to remember.
The problem is, society teaches introverts that they should be more like extroverts. People at work who always say their opinions in meetings, are quick to volunteer for projects and flit around the office befriending managers like convivial hummingbirds are the ones who seem to get the promotions and the glowing performance reviews, while the ‘quiet’ ones are told in their annual appraisal that they need to work on being more outgoing. Every cringy dating guru ever will tell you that confidence is key when trying to woo your crush, so in this conventional thinking the more reserved among us are left at the wayside in the insane race to find a romantic companion. Anyone who displays even a shred of ‘loner’ or ‘shy’ characteristics, especially in school, is in danger of being socially outcast. Just the terms ‘loner’ and ‘shy’ by themselves are more loaded than Kim Kardashian-West, ‘loner’ ranging from unfortunate school bully victim to downright creepy serial killer, and don’t even get me started on the connotations of the word ‘shy’. People use these words interchangeably with the term introvert, which is wrong. Being an introvert does not mean someone is shy and being shy does not make someone an introvert.
The workplace is an especially challenging environment for those of introverted persuasion. It can feel like swimming upstream with one arm, broomstick legs and a breakdancing manatee on your back because, whether they admit it or not, employers have a bias towards extroverted, ‘people person’ qualities. How often do you see language like ‘reserved,’ ‘thoughtful,’ ‘attentive listener,’ ‘independent,’ ‘sharp observational skills’ on a job advert? We introverts are not interested in small talk, which seems to make up so much of professional life – nothing strikes fear into the heart of the introvert employee like the dreaded ‘N-Word’… ‘networking’. But, get me going on the deep and philosophical questions in life and there’s no stopping me. If you didn’t already know that, dear reader, then you’re probably realising it by now.
Another side to this social psychology cuboid is that society is afraid of silence. People would probably rather wear an inhabited bee hive than live through those long moments where conversation runs dry. It is normal to exist in constant noise (radio on in the car, TV on at home, music in headphones on the go) which is why meditation in the western world is so alien. When was the last time you saw someone just sitting and observing the world, not reaching for their phone to rescue them from the tsunami of unbearable nothingness that comes with just sitting and observing the world? But wait, there’s more. Why is it that being a loner is socially unacceptable but being a lone wolf is cool? Why is solo travel admired but actually being somewhere alone – out for a coffee or a meal or, God forbid, a beer – is considered weird or sad?
But silence is powerful. Being alone is empowering. If you can be truly okay on your own then you can be truly comfortable with yourself. Silence is the gateway to being a better listener. It allows you time to think before speaking and avoid knee-jerk responses. I think two people being able to be in silence together is the most magical thing.
Before I set off on my odyssey, I secretly had the desire to get better at talking to people and putting myself ‘out there’. I hoped that this would help me to function with greater success in life and perhaps break the cycle of often feeling overlooked, especially in a professional context. I’ve spent my entire life quietly observing extroverts (classic introvert) in order to learn how to cope in their world. That’s how I eventually got to this point; to being the wolf in sheep’s clothing, travelling alone and tricking people into thinking that I’m an outgoing person when I’m secretly not. A ferocious crime, I’m sure you’ll agree.
But here comes the plot twist: while I have become better at talking to people and putting myself ‘out there,’ through my solo travel experiment, I’ve also realised that I don’t need to be the life of the party or make conversation with everyone I meet or fit into the corporate mould or feel weird for wanting to spend time alone. I just, quite simply, don’t need to. The real moral of the story was learning to feel comfortable in my own skin, because if I can do that, then everything else follows; conversations become easier, I feel like I have interesting things to say, creativity flows, and I have the courage to go for the things I want.
I don’t like to give advice to anyone about anything ever, because, to tell you the truth, the longer I’ve been alive on this planet the more I realise I don’t know anything about anything. However, I am aware that I’m in a position to offer encouragement to any intrepid soul that identifies as an introvert and perhaps wishes to travel. Like I was, you may be worried about meeting people or having to find work or functioning in a new country. This is what I have discovered:
Take things one step at a time; the first leap into travel is huge so don’t demand too much of yourself for the first few weeks. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed; the feeling is temporary and allow yourself some time to regroup. If you’re finding something challenging that other travellers seem to find easy, just remember that they will find other things challenging that you probably find easy (like being alone!) Don’t get hung up on labels like ‘shy’; this is not who you really are and anyone who says that about you has not met the ‘real you’. But, most of all, own it. You are who you are and you’re not wrong for being that way. I love spending time alone and skipping the small talk to get to the deep and philosophical shit and taking a moment to think before I speak and I love all those things about myself.
Believe it or not, my biggest fear before I left the UK was that I wouldn’t be able to make any friends. The ironic realisation is that now, eighteen months later, it has become clear that making friends is something I’m really very good at. How’s that for an introvert?
My friend moving abroad was surprised. “Really?” he asked.
“Oh yeah!” I said, “I’m a full on, hard core introvert!”
“I wouldn’t have thought that,” he shook his head and looked at me curiously.
“Thank you,” I said, pleased, “I’ve been working on that one for years.”
If you’d like to learn more about introverts, look no further than our ambassador, Susan Cain. Her Ted Talk from a few years ago is interesting if you have a spare 20 minutes:
Here’s a good article on introverts in the workplace from Forbes:
If, like me, you’ve ever felt you are wrong for not being an extrovert, this is a nice rundown of the strengths of the introverted: