Eiko 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