ExtraversionEiko is a firecracker. Chatty, expressive, and self-confident, she lives a fast-paced life and wouldn’t have it any other way. A self-described “people person,” she loves being the centre of attention at parties, and feels at home in a crowd. Eiko thinks nothing of striking up a conversation with a complete stranger to practice the local language. (Her tutor can’t believe how much progress she’s made in such a short time!) Unfortunately, Eiko is not quite so fond of her own company: on those rare occasions when she finds herself alone, she becomes bored and irritable.

Ilana finds people like Eiko exhausting to be around. Preferring calm, peaceful surroundings, Ilana shuns the frenetic social scene in which Eiko thrives. Crowds overwhelm her. She enjoys spending time alone; in social situations, she is quiet and reserved. Although she can read and write extremely well in the local language, she struggles with the most basic conversations. Small talk — in any language — is excruciating for her.

What is Extraversion?

Extraversion is a tendency to be energized by activity and the company of others. Extraverts are social animals: with their finely honed people skills and unbridled enthusiasm, they make friends easily. They are spontaneous, optimistic, and often quite competitive. These traits, plus their proclivity for seizing the initiative and asserting themselves in group settings, make them natural leaders.

Extraverts crave variety and constant stimulation: routine tasks bore them and solitude is unbearable. They may engage in risky activities and thrill-seeking behaviour in search of excitement.

Whereas extraverts are fully engaged in the social sphere, introverts tend to withdraw from society. A horror of being in the limelight makes them appear shy or cold, but most introverts are merely quieter than their extravert counterparts, and become energized from time spent alone. They tend to be less spontaneous than extraverts, more risk-averse and less easily bored.

What does Extraversion mean for expats?

Multiple studies have confirmed the links between extraversion and both psychological adjustment1 (feelings of well-being or satisfaction during cross-cultural transitions) and general adjustment2 (the degree of comfort with living in the new cultural environment.)

As I briefly mentioned in the comments of my post on Agreeableness, I have to assume that certain cultures will respond better to “extreme” extraversion than others. Eiko would probably feel much more comfortable in New York (a city that matches her high energy and exuberance), than she would in Helsinki (whose population is generally more reserved), for example.

In fact, a study involving native English-speaking expats in Singapore found that “extraversion was associated with increased feelings of boredom, frustration, depression and poor health.”3 This led interculturalists to formulate the Cultural Fit Hypothesis, which suggests that “in many cases it is not personality per se that predicts cross-cultural adjustment, but rather the ‘cultural fit’ between the acculturating individual and host culture norms.”4

Even with that caveat, it’s easy to see why extraverts have the advantage over introverts. The extraverts are out there day after day, mingling with the locals and getting to know the culture up close and personal. They’re practicing their language skills, making — and learning from — tons of mistakes along the way. Knowing the language gives them deeper insight into the culture, and dramatically increases the size of their potential friendship pool. Plus, they get to learn all those cool words and phrases the introverts — stuck inside with their Berlitz guides and flash cards — don’t have a hope of discovering.

I envy the expat extraverts. I scored 37 on the Extraversion scale, which is accurate but pretty depressing. I don’t want my epitaph to read

Here lies Maria.

She tended to shy away from social situations.

As an expat, I made a point of gritting my teeth and forcing myself to enter the noisy, humanity-filled world outside the tranquil haven of my home. Sometimes I ended up enjoying everything the day threw at me; sometimes — how shall I put this? — I didn’t. But there were many days when I just could not face the prospect of making small talk with another new person, or worse, a whole group of new people. I look back now and shake my poor introverted head at the opportunities I let slip through my fingers because I’m hardwired for solitude.

How has your position on the Extraversion scale affected your expat life?

Please remember that personality is multi-faceted, and that each of the Big Five traits is made up of many sub-traits. Focusing on a single trait without taking into account the complex interplay among the many aspects of personality can lead to a distorted impression. Also keep in mind that Eiko and Ilana represent the extremes of the extraversion spectrum, while most of us are found somewhere in the middle. That said, scoring high or low is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — it just is.

This is Part 4 in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. Previous posts in the series are:

Next up: Neuroticism

1Blakeney, R. N., & Hysong, S. (2007). An enhanced model of cultural coping on international assignments: Antecedents of psychological adjustment and sociocultural adaptation. Annual Meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, New York.
2Ramalu, S.S., Raduan, C.R., Uli, J. & Kumar, N. (2010). Personality and cross-cultural adjustment among expatriate assignees in Malaysia. International Business Research, 3(4), 96-104.
3, 4Ward, C., Leong, C-H. & Low, M. (2004). Personality and sojourner adjustment: An exploration of the Big Five and the Cultural Fit Proposition. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(2), 137-151. In Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock (2nd ed.). Routledge.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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15 Responses to Extraversion

  1. Selfmanic says:

    I scored 14, lol. I keep wanting to try moving to another country and love reading your blog for tips and ideas. Not brave enough to do it gung ho, but it will happen one day. For right now I am planning one trip over seas about every two years starting this year. Cannot wait, Europe here I come!

    • Maria says:

      A fellow introvert! I think your plan is a good one — it’ll give you a chance to test the waters and decide if you can see yourself living overseas or not. (As long as you keep in mind that a holiday is nothing like real life, that is!) Have fun in Europe.

  2. I don’t know… I might be in the middle. I like being around crowd but don’t like talking. It just takes practice.

  3. heide says:

    I scored 83. The extrovert profile fits me fairly well, but I’m not afraid to be alone and I do need quiet downtime to recharge. When I’m home, my house is quiet — I don’t have the tv or radio on for company.

    “They are spontaneous, optimistic, and often quite competitive” actually describes me pretty well. I think it’s my strongest trait for making expat life easier.

    • Maria says:

      Optimism is extremely important when you’re an expat, and I think spontaneity is a bonus. These are traits that allow you to enjoy life instead of merely living it.

  4. Nicola says:

    Its funny I scored high extravert before becoming and expat and have found my score has become more intraverted at times whilst we’ve been overseas. I think it ihas been in conjunction with the period of expat blues that can strike any time. One of the things any expat should do is make sure they are not isolated during their time away yet getting out and about can be one of the most demanding actions in the first year or so.

    • Maria says:

      You’re so right about that, Nicola. And because that isolation comes naturally to introverts, they’re even more at risk for an escalation of the expat blues into full-blown depression.

  5. bookjunkie says:

    This was so interesting. It’s weird that I am extroverted on my blog and enjoying the social interaction, but introverted in real life. I love the solitude as well. Can get quite uncomfortable with people I have never met and small talk.

    To me you seem very sociable and extroverted through the online medium. I guess we are kinda similar.

    • Maria says:

      Blogging gives introverted people the courage to reach out because any social interaction is mediated by the computer — we can hide behind the technology. It’s much less anxiety-provoking than meeting people in real life, right? I think It’s all about psychological comfort. Put me in a bar with a bunch of friends, for example, and I’m extremely outgoing. But put me in a bar with a bunch of strangers, and I’ll hide in the cloak room till it’s time to go home.

  6. I think the ‘cultural fit between the acculturating individual and the host culture norms’ is definitely important. As a raging extrovert, I’d probably be so out of sync in a ‘quieter’ culture. Yet like Heide, a fellow extrovert, I do tend to keep things quiet when recharging at home. Over time I’ve come to realize that for me, extroversion is about connecting.

    • Maria says:

      Lucky you! That’s why extraverts tend to adjust to new cultures more easily: they interact more with host country nationals. (Although if they also score low on the Openness scale, their interactions might reinforce prejudices instead of leading to adjustment.)

  7. Crystal says:

    Thank god for blogging. That’s how I’ve made many friends that have translated into real world friendships.

    I’m very much an extrovert…in a small crowd where I know people. If I dont’ know many people or it’s a LARGE crowd, I’m shy. It all depends.

    I think it depends on the country. While English is an official language, I often feel more displaced here in SG than I do in France where I speak the language, but poorly. I think that (outside of Paris) the French are a more extroverted people themselves, and they help me laugh at my poor turns of phrase. Whereas I crack a joke here in SG (which then means I’m facing cultural differences of humor too) and I get a stone face. But it’s also something that changes as you grow to understand your host country better, too, I think.

    • Maria says:

      There are so many different strands involved in cross-cultural encounters that’s it’s pretty much impossible to tease them apart. How much of what transpires is because of cultural differences, and how much is individual psychology? What about the context: are you hungry, tired, having marital problems? I have a tendency to look at individual inputs without examining the way they interact with each other, but of course we’re all more than just the sum of our parts. I have a feeling you could spend a lifetime trying to figure it all out….

    • Maria says:

      And yes, thank God for blogging!

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