Culture clash between introverts and extroverts

I’m an introverted person coming from an introverted family of computer programmers, bike mechanics and accountants. On top of that, introversion is quite accepted in the country I come from, which is probably one of the most introverted countries in Europe.

As a consequence, I never saw my introversion as a problem. I only ever had introverted friends and my strategy with dealing with extroverts was simply to avoid them. Of course, I did not do this consciously and I never thought about the introvert/extrovert divide in any detail. There were just noisy and self-confident people I did not like and that did not like me either and I stayed away from them.

In the last two year, this has changed.  My colleagues are mostly Northern Americans and some Dutch, which are decidedly more extroverted cultures like the one I am coming from, and most of them are either extroverted or act like them. The introverted people at our institute are so freaked out by the extroverted culture that they have mostly totally gone into hiding.

Consequently, I have been spending a lot of time with extroverts for the first time in my life, which has been surprisingly difficult.

Of course, maybe there are extroverts which are different, but my extroverted colleagues just seems to want to get as much airtime as possible, telling their stories, presenting themselves in a good light, and no real conversation ever seems to occur. People do not ask each other follow-up question. There is never a real, honest reaction to what someone else says. When I spend time with extroverts, I am first entertained to some degree, but then things start to feel increasingly unreal to me. I feel like no actual contact between human beings is occurring, I feel like everyone is totally on their own and that scares me. I start to crave human connection. I try to ask questions, to give an honest reaction to something someone says, but I continually feel like I am sand in a machine which has a purpose that I just don’t get. After an evening with extroverts, I honestly feel like life has no meaning. Probably because for me the meaning of life is people understanding and empathizing with each other, which most extroverts are not very interested in.

The truth is that given my upbringing I cannot avoid seeing the extroverts as the ones being not normal and deficient to some degree. How sad that they cannot listen to each other, that they do not tolerate being alone well, that they always want to have more people around them to distract them from some kind of inner emptiness. I wonder if they are unable to be really close to another human being and I feel sorry for them.

Of course, the extroverts coming from extroverted cultures, on the other hand, are convinced that they are like people are supposed to be, and my way of being introverted and not trying to at least appear to be extroverted, seems to irritate them greatly. I am probably not very good at hiding when I am annoyed or bored with the conversation, and when I say my opinion it is often the opposite of what every one else is thinking. Consequently I  get comments about “being negative” or even “being aggressive”, and it is clear from many small signs that my colleagues do not really like me. This was, I think, what triggered my social anxiety and what made me so unhappy during my time here.

At the moment, I mostly stay away from my extroverted colleagues. I eat lunch alone, I avoid coffee breaks, I have stopped going out with them. To an extrovert, that sounds probably like a massive disaster, but it is a huge relief to me and I feel more at peace with myself. It is as if I have tried to have a conversation with another species for two years, and it never worked out in the least. I am just glad to be able to accept this now.  It is neither their fault, nor mine. It is just a huge cultural difference that I cannot get over. Now that I know, it seems very interesting to me that the Dutch and Northern American cultures are so different than my own. Their preference for extroversion that is so strong that even most scientist are extroverts or try to behave like they are. I always believed that scientists must be introverts by default, but apparently I was completely wrong.

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20 Responses to Culture clash between introverts and extroverts

  1. Dan says:

    hi there, I feel you.. this is exactly what I’m going through as well. When you realized that your extroverted or seemingly extroverted friends are incompatible with you.. maybe I should just learn to be at peace with myself

  2. eloahjames says:

    I am an introvert from North America, so I’ve been dealing with this problem you describe my whole life. That thing you said about sand in a machine you don’t understand? Your inability to be fake? I completely relate to those feelings. Did they also always look at you as though you had sprouted tentacles when you asked your questions and expressed differing opinions? By choosing to stay away from them, I think you have found the best solution. Best of luck to you.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you. I exactly know what you mean with feeling like you have sprouted tentacles. Sometimes in social events I go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and am surprised that I still look like a normal human being. 🙂

  3. Paddy says:

    Hey there,

    I’m working in research as well, just graduated and in my first job as a research assistant. I definitely have the same problems you talked about, and had real trouble settling in and relating to anyone during the first few months, everyone just seemed so loud and fake. There aren’t any cubicles in the office, just long desks, and any conversation you have can be heard by everyone else, who can then chip in (and are often expected to). I still feel really weird and conscious at times, and even sometimes feel like I’m almost having a panic attack when I’m expected to respond to something the whole office is listening in to.

    It has gotten better with time though.. Avoiding everyone and not going out for lunch and stuff really didn’t work for me, since this is an incredibly social lab and I didn’t want to stand out in a bad way either. I guess everyone’s gotten used to me being less jumpy and excitable than they are. Also, having gotten to know them, I realised they are actually really nice and decent people, who just happen to be very loud.. Most of the time I find I can get out of feeling anxious in conversations by asking questions about their lives, and extroverts are more than happy to prattle on, and leave me with some breathing space to listen and settle in to a conversation.

    Yeah, I always felt I’d be happy in science because I could just do my own thing and not ever have to work in a group. Its really not like that, research now requires a lot of collaborations and social interactions. On the bright side, I realised this can help me when I get stuck during an experiment. Being on friendly terms with people at work makes it less awkward for me to ask for help and I’ve seen others are definitely more willing to help once they got to know me better personally. Some really do go out of their way which will of course helps with the science- and I always try and treat them to a coffee afterwards 🙂

    Yup that’s just what I’ve observed so far 🙂

  4. introvert says:

    Oh yea, me being very introverted, and some family members being very extroverted, I’ve had too many clashes to handle that I think ended up lowering all of our self-esteem. If only people could get some education about this in school and learn how to talk to others and stuff. Thanks.

  5. Domesticated Academic says:

    i’m a big introvert! i feel your pain and related to this post in so many ways!

    i blogged about it too last year!

  6. GMP says:

    Very late to this party… A lot of it is cultural. I have been in the US for nearly 14 years, and I still cannot get over the superficiality of the interpersonal interactions (at least in the part of the country I am in). As you say, there is no honest human interaction, it’s just exchanging pleasantries. Extroverts also smother you to death with their self-centeredness, but American academic introverts are vaguely pleasant but really clammed up and you can’t penetrate their inner sanctum. I am going to posit that Americans as a culture are actually very guarded — they will chat/do small talk with anyone, but they will never talk about real stuff (or at least not for a very very long time, until they get to know you very, very well).

    • zinemin says:

      I have the same impression about Americans being very guarded in some way. When working with Southern or Central Europeans, it is normal to quickly find out about some of their personal life, like health problems, relationship with parents etc. The Americans always seem to be hiding themselves behind jokes. Maybe it is because they are so afraid to appear “negative”. To me they appear teflon-like and I feel like I don’t know them at all after spending hours and hours with them, which frustrates me a lot.

      • I love this thread. Me: American expat science geek in the Netherlands. I feel the same way about americans…and myself…that it is quite difficult to open up to people about personal things because it does appear quite negative. Also I have a huge fear of being judged for my personal life stuff. My experience with other expats from Europe is that everyone has their guard up though….and it is quite superficial conversation with everyone in work. The key to opening up is to just hit up a borrel or pub with colleagues and have some drinks. It’s amazing how fast you can get to know the people you see everyday.

  7. dekanat says:

    Very interesting post. I’m really curious as to where you are from, though you seem to intentionally avoid saying! Your country sounds like it might suit me! I’m a rather introverted scientist from the UK, and have spent time in Germany, the US, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland. Of all those, the people in Poland seemed the most genuine and pleasant. The Americans seemed to be either bombastic egotists or pretty nice actually. It’s actually been in the Netherlands (most), then Germany, the UK and Sweden where I’ve felt most under pressure to be more outgoing, though that was there in the US too. The main problem with the Netherlands/Germany was that the Dutch and the Germans would actually explicitly criticize my introversion, whereas the British, Swedes and Americans (the nice ones) were generally too polite to do so.

    • Introwertyk says:

      People in Poland seemed the most genuine and pleasant? Nice to hear as I’m from Poland 😉 However people in Poland very often says that people in the west europe are more open, friendly etc. However I think it’s because of better standard of living and differences in mentalinty. Also the countries like spain, italy, greece where is much warmer people seems to be there more extraverts (more open,friendly).

  8. Outerspace says:

    What’s interesting to me as an extrovert is that when you wrote “Probably because for me the meaning of life is people understanding and empathizing with each other” I felt like that’s how I am. Whereas I thought introverts were more into themselves, working out things in their head, and not engaging with the world on the same level that extroverts tend to. I guess everyone seems to think they’re the best type to be.

    • Waterman says:

      I’m an introvert but it’s wonderful to hear the perspective of an extrovert! I think it’s very easy for people from opposite ends of the spectrum to “just not get the other”. I also find that very sad, as I do try my best to understand “the other”. From my nearly forty years as an introvert I can only say that time and experience in an extrovert’s world has eroded my introvert “edges”, like a ocean waves on a piece of glass. Not that I’m any less an introvert. It’s more that time and time and time again I’ve observed others misinterpret my introverted behaviour as evidence of me being an unfriendly person, undeserving of the benefit of the doubt. This can have devastating consequences in situations where “the waves” and “the stone” are forced into each others’ company on a daily basis (e.g. the workplace)… but I can assure you it’s not to the detriment of “the waves”.

      Yes it’s true we introverts can at times be so withdrawn that we seem not to care about others. Key word: ‘seem’. It’s not that we don’t care, but more that we’ve learned not to share our introverted selves. Our tendencies to speak only about “important things” has led to a lifetime of comments that we’re “too serious” or just plain “weird”. When in the company of extroverts we spend our time searching for the meaning in an endless series of trivial non-sequiturs, or fighting for equal time between louder, self-centred anecdotes. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but let me explain. When an introvert hears the following: “I saw movie X last night” followed by another person, “oh, then you should see movie Y”, followed by another person, “Did you see him in movie Z?”… the introvert is secretly craving for the conversation to “dive deeper” rather than “skimming the surface”. So often we’re craving for the conversation to generate comments like “what do you think the writer was trying to tell us about society as a whole?” But alas, such comments are usually met with looks like we’ve “sprouted tentacles”.

      I’ve given some thought as to why small talk is viewed positively by extroverts and negatively by introverts; I’ll try to express this as succinctly as possible. From my vantage point extroverts see socializing as fostering group cohesion, whereas introverts see it as devoid of any substance. “But why is that important?” I keep hearing myself ask. “Get to the point!” I have to admit that in the end I do “get it”… I understand that small talk allows for a non-threatening form of communication that can foster group harmony, and that on occasion “big talk” can become offensive to others (though rarely intended). But what really sticks in my craw is when I sense extroverts losing patience with my quietness, or pressured to join in on a conversation that’s totally slanted their way. At that point I feel completely frustrated with the Catch-22 I’ve been placed in: a lifetime of learning to keep the “serious” and “negative” (but to an introvert, “important” and “productive”) conversation out of social situations, and then paying the social penalty of being labelled a “rude”, “unengaging” and “unfriendly” person.

      I really hope I have not come off as arrogant or “holier than thou”. My aim here is only to help explain an introvert’s perspective. This is an “important” conversation that society on the whole needs to have. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts introverts are more than eager to ‘speak up’ about this… hopefully extroverts will be willing to engage (and listen a bit too).

  9. CPO says:

    Thank you very much for writing this article, I think it provides a very accurate summary of what some of the effective “cultural gaps” are between extraverts and introverts, and it very closely reflects my own experiences in work and life. I’m a Canadian, and a lot of the themes discussed here also reflect well in my own country. There seems to be a strong emphasis within the educational system, and in work structuring, towards near-constant collaboration among people with much less emphasis on individual critical thinking.

    As an introvert, I’ve managed to make some peace with the situation by accepting that I’m living and working in a “foreign culture” dominated by the extravert mentality, which is a bit ridiculous because I’m a born-and-raised Canadian, but that’s just the reality of it. I can definitely interact with the extravert “species” (to use your word 🙂 ) in a functional way, and doing this was a bit easier at the start of my adult life, when I really wanted to adapt to and learn from these social groups. As I got older however, I began to respect and value my own time more, and would become frustrated that I would be expected to listen to extraverts rattling on about the things that were important to them, under the assumption that the “loudest” ideas in the group were the best ones. I’m sorry, but my time is worth more to me than that, and none of us really know how much time we have left so why not be frugal with it? Honestly, I’m at a point now where I take a very selfish and strategic approach to socializing: I do it as well as I’m able to, if I stand to gain something from it. I also decided to begin working for myself a couple years ago, so typically my reason for engaging in the “extraverted lifestyle”, in short doses, is to build new business.

    What fascinates me is how the introversion tendency, although more pronounced in certain countries, does seem to exist as its own unique set of cultural traits, regardless of geographic region. This makes me hopeful that we may be able to “organize as a group” at some point in the future, and begin to share and celebrate these cultural values and beliefs, instead of sometimes viewing them as a liability to manage our lives and careers. Thanks again for the article!

  10. Brigitte says:

    dear zinemin, I was quite shocked with your interpersonal experiences with extroverted people. Being an extrovert myself (ENFP in Myers-Briggs, I performed the test over and over for the last 3 or 4 years, the result is always the same). I cannot judge by your experiences and even less your point of view about us, but I pretty much contradict some aspects that you attributed to this group. When you state “my extroverted colleagues just seems to want to get as much airtime as possible, telling their stories, presenting themselves in a good light, and no real conversation ever seems to occur. People do not ask each other follow-up question. There is never a real, honest reaction to what someone else says. When I spend time with extroverts, I am first entertained to some degree, but then things start to feel increasingly unreal to me. I feel like no actual contact between human beings is occurring, I feel like everyone is totally on their own and that scares me. I start to crave human connection”. Maybe you could take a peek at, and I pretty much relate to everything, like “Deeply caring and concerned for others; very perceptive and insightful about people’s thoughts and motives; gifted at understanding others; possess strong people skills; genuinely interested in others; place great importance on their personal relationships” etc. But because I’m not Mother Teresa, I also have the trait of “Value and need alone time to sort things out in their minds”. I also need to recharge after a party or a whole day at a conference, otherwise I get literally ill. I’m surrounded by introverts and some of them feels like family to me. We really get along. I think empathy is the key, more than being an intro or extro…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ugh, I feel you. I live in the US, and I’m still in high school, but I feel like these extroverted ideals are just so infuriating to deal with. Over the years, I’ve gotten really good at putting on a smile and laughing and being loud (I have a naturally loud voice, so this helps) but every day when I get home I’m exhausted. This isn’t from the school workload itself, it’s from people. I feel bad for my parents; when I get home, I just want to be alone and I’m generally in a crabby mood for the rest of the day. I just want to get away from people, and if I’m not smiling or talking people will ask “what’s wrong,” as if being quiet is a bad thing. It always gets worse towards the end of the school year, when I just kind of stop and ask myself why I care what others think, and I start being more of a recluse and letting down my projection of interest in others’ lives. It takes all summer to collect the energy to put on my face for the next year, and I hate this about myself, because I know I should be grateful, but often I wish that instead of going on family vacations, I could just stay at home and relax alone in my room. You may think its just a phase, and I’m just a stupid lazy teenager, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been this way for my whole life, I just vented differently (I cried a LOT when I was younger). It also doesn’t help that I now go to a different school from all my childhood friends, and I haven’t really made any new “serious” friends. I feel like American high school is one of the worst places an introvert could be, as you’re forced to spend six hours with people putting on a façade that you like talking to people, in fear of being labeled as “weird,” and even more time doing extracurriculars to get into a good university. I realize I sound incredibly whiny and obnoxious, but I felt the need to put my two cents in.

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  13. Angie says:

    I’ve grown up in Canada, but growing up, I felt always alienated and like I was something else. As I learned about Scandinavian culture (I’m part Scandinavian myself via 2 grandparent who immigrated to Canada), yet of their whole family even I’m the only one who shows signs of obvious highly-introverted nature. I wish I could just move to Norway or some place I am not always needing to be “fixed”. At work they are always trying to “fix” me like I’m broken and people ask me “is this your first job?”. I’m also soft-spoken and just try to be peaceful so I hate shouting even if it’s in my job description to do so—-it is just not me. I feel as if I stay outside of an introvert country, I’ll never get far in my life as I’ll always be passed up, stepped on and mocked for my entire life (I’m 26 now so pretty sure I’m not gonna be one of those “I was just like you” people who think you simply become another person…or are “fixed” and no longer “like that” -_-. Even my in laws think I’m “slow” but really I’m just trying to avoid being rude or hasty and got social anxiety in general so I get really nervous.

    • Rem says:

      I’m from India. I’m just like you & I understand how you feel. This is exactly how people here see me. They take silence as rudeness and if you’re silent people simply believe that you’re stupid or something. I hate it when they force me to “open up”, actually when they, the extroverts, are the ones who should really open up instead of living a life on the surface. I love to have an introverted friend, but it’s really really rare & a very difficult task to find one in my country. I really wish all the introverts in this world unitedly decided to live together in a place. There will be lots of silence, sincere and loyal friendship, true love, and as most of the introverts are geniuses in one thing or the other, we’ll be of mutual help to each other. So many thinkers, scientists, writers, musicians coming together. I guess it will be great. Mother nature will also be happy..As we introverts are nature friendly and usually do not intend to destroy other species. Most of us love to keep pets, & have a kind attitude towards animals and other species. So I guess a great culture will be born…if something like this happen.

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