My name is Beth, and I am an introverted cross-cultural worker.
Wait, how can that be? We all know that cross-cultural workers thrive on meeting new people, are fearless in unfamiliar situations, and are bold and articulate in proclaiming the Gospel. They come alive through activity and social contact, eager to be all things to all people. Their home is always open, they are constantly available, and there is no limit to what they will do for others. Jesus called his disciples to go out into the world with the good news; cross-cultural workers boldly go where no one has gone before (no wait, that part is not in the Great Commission). The bottom line, though, is that a cross-cultural worker must be extroverted, naturally.
Well, a majority of cross-cultural workers probably are, given that about two-thirds of any given population are thought to be extroverted. It may well be easier for an outgoing, unselfconscious extrovert to face many challenges of cross-cultural life, such as coping with constant uprooting and change, making inevitable mistakes while learning a new language and culture, being on display as a foreigner, or merely standing out as a Christian in a secular society. Still, I can testify that God also calls introverts into cross-cultural ministry, and that with proper care and self-understanding, we have a lot to offer to His kingdom.
In order to do that, however, we need to be free to be ourselves, to serve according to our God-given temperaments. We may need to overcome the feeling that somehow we are defective because we do not enjoy the world in the same way as “everyone else.” There are many misconceptions about introversion; it should not be equated with shyness, self-centeredness, or anti-social behavior. It mainly has to do with our energy source: extroverted people look outward to gain energy, and introverted ones look within. Rather than being pumped up through interaction, introverts lose energy when with others, and we need solitude to recharge. Again, this is not a defect; it is merely a fact. As we minister, we need to embrace our introversion, to work within and through it, because the extroverted world needs us.
Do you think you might be introverted too? Start with this simple checklist. Do you:
- feel drained by social interaction?
- need rest after outside activities, even those you enjoy?
- prefer to observe an activity or social setting for a while before joining in?
- crave private space and time?
- prefer working alone over working in group projects?
- tend to listen more than you speak and find it hard to make your voice heard in a group?
- appear to others as quiet, calm, mysterious, or aloof?
- feel you express yourself more clearly in writing than orally?
- hate to draw attention to yourself?
- prefer a few close relationships to having a wide circle of acquaintances?
If so, relax; this is all normal behavior—for an introverted person.
Introversion and extroversion are inborn traits, and every personality operates somewhere along the continuum. We are literally hardwired to tend more toward one or the other, and recent scientific discoveries in tracking brain activity show that introverts process information differently than extroverted people do. If you identify yourself as introverted, be assured that you do not need to grow out of it or somehow overcome it; know that it is not wrong for you to live your life in harmony with the way God made you. You are not self-absorbed or substandard, and you cannot “help it” any more than left-handed people can help their hand-use preference (though as we know, lefties have had their own struggle for acceptance, one which is far from over—have you ever come across a left-handed computer mouse?).
I know from experience that living freely as an introvert is much easier said than done. As a North American coming from a culture that holds to an “extrovert ideal” of a leader who is gregarious, comfortable in crowds, quickly turns strangers into friends, easily navigates diverse social circles, energized by conversation and social interaction, able to draw people to herself by her personal magnetism and charm, my own personality traits fall far short. What mission board would admit to looking for candidates who describe themselves as reserved, thoughtful, quiet, and careful? Often I have sought to conform to extroverted expectations, to “deny myself,” and to accept that as part of the cost of serving Christ overseas. Of course, in order to grow we must stretch beyond our natural capacities at times. However, I believe God wants to liberate His introverted children to thrive as they are, and to make their uniquely valuable contributions to His mission.
The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron
The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts in the Church by Adam S. McHugh
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Also listen to Susan Cain’s TED talk
Introvert Confessions, Part 2 will be published next week.
Question to consider: How can you put into practice the idea “that with proper care and self-understanding, we have a lot to offer to His kingdom”?