As we wrap up this Foreign Service thing, I find myself contemplating the contradictions in my life. Like being very good at moving while actually despising moving. Or having an “unconventional” resumé despite having been incredibly busy for 25+ years. Or being a hypothyroid cold weather hater who somehow ended up posted to three freezing Central European cities. And so on.
One of these contradictions is being an introvert in an environment that largely favors extroverts—or at least requires a lot of extroverted behavior. I have sure learned a lot about that over the last 29 years.
Many extroverts thinks that introverts don’t like to socialize, or don’t like people. They may even think we’re weird. That’s not the case. We aren’t weird, and we like people just fine. We just often find them to be a lot of work!
Now, consider how much time is spent in the Foreign Service either meeting new people, making new friends, or briefly socializing with complete strangers. None of this is actually easy for anyone, of course. That is one reason that the Foreign Service/expatriate lifestyle can be so stressful. But I think it is safe to say that it is all the more difficult for introverts.
As an introvert, you need to know yourself. What you need, and what stresses you out. It’s not about what you can do. Most introverts can impersonate social butterflies when necessary. Many actors are actually introverts! It’s about balancing the cost of those performances with your own mental health.
When we first went overseas, I did not understand why I didn’t enjoy the chance to “meet new people” at receptions. I knew the word “introvert,” of course, but in 1989 I couldn’t exactly Google for more information. My extroverted FSO spouse already thought it was weird that I didn’t like these events, and so he was at a loss to explain my absence from them.
Eventually, I understood that these diplomatic mixers were just plain tiring for me—especially when we became a family and I decided to stay home with the kids. If I were an extrovert, I might have jumped at the chance to dress up and have an adult conversation in the evening. But I really needed to read a book after the kids went to bed. Alone. And so that’s what I usually did.
Few people in the diplomatic community really care about spousal attendance at receptions anymore, but at the time, some (including my husband on occasion) thought I was not a properly supportive spouse. To avoid conflict, I didn’t deal with the problem as straightforwardly as I should have. I would put off a decision on an event until it was too late to get a babysitter, for example, instead of just firmly saying “no thank you.”
A large official event is a challenging and tiring mental task for which I have to work up an energy level that I may not be able to maintain for as long as the event lasts. In fact, I might find it a lot harder to be “diplomatic” as the evening wears on because I’m getting tired and cranky. So, I might leave undiplomatically early. (It’s better that way, trust me.)
Typically for an introvert, I just don’t get a lot out of small talk or superficial relationships. So, whatever “charge” an extrovert might get out of the simple act of socializing at a big event is lost on me. There’s just no payoff there for all the hard work.
There is a difference between the necessity of making small talk with a person who may become a friend, and a person who is only talking to you at all because of your spouse’s job— and who will wander off as soon as a more “useful” person walks by. Now that is a superficial relationship.
As a spouse, I’m not actually paid to attend receptions. So, I am expected to perform an activity for which I am completely unsuited, for which I will get no credit, and for which I receive no compensation. Probably while wearing uncomfortable clothes. Can’t imagine why I would not be excited about all that!
Some recommend the wine solution. There’s no doubt that a glass (or three) of the grape can make a command performance easier. But I prefer not to put myself in the situation unless absolutely necessary. I have attended exactly one big reception at my current post, and that was because my husband asked very nicely. My days of being unpaid arm candy have been over for some time now. Best quality of life decision ever.
As an introvert, you have to set the boundaries that work for you. You might decide (as I did) that official dinner parties are manageable, but big receptions are asking too much. Whatever “rule of thumb” you come up with and politely enforce is bound to be better in the long run than avoiding the subject!
There remains another challenge for the introverted trailing spouse: the necessity of meeting new people at any post. That’s not so bad. Yes, it is also a job, but we get “paid” for the effort with new and interesting friends. On our own terms, and at our own pace!
When I arrive at a post, I look for social situations that I am comfortable with. Introverted doesn’t always mean shy, after all. I just prefer smaller groups and engaging in activities while socializing. Playgroups and other kids’ activities worked pretty well for this years ago. Nowadays, I join groups and take classes. Eventually, I get to know the people in those activities and classes. It’s just that simple. (And not at all weird!)
Being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people. It just means that I like to choose my own people!
So, find a comfortable way to put yourself “out there” socially. For some, that means volunteering, or signing up for classes. For others, it means getting a job. It doesn’t matter which method you choose, if you are doing what you want to be doing, the personal connections will follow. Just give it a little time.
It may be difficult to be an introverted trailing spouse, but we do have one clear advantage—particularly these days, when EFM jobs are scarce. We may sometimes be lonely, but we are hardly ever bored. After all, we’re the kids who could entertain ourselves for hours with sticks and rocks! Until the friendships “click” at post, we’ll be going a whole lot less crazy than the extrovert who is climbing the walls without a job.
So, there’s that. And, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Right?