Introversion and Foreign Service Life


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introversion, myers briggs, ISFJ

I am a strong introvert. (Perhaps not unsurprising given my penchant for making friends on the internet.) I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator many times over the years and while my other characteristics have fluctuated, the “I” in my (current) ISFJ has remained consistent.Sometimes people are surprised by the fact that I’m an introvert. I work in communications and I used to be a reporter. These things require one to do uncomfortable tasks like talk to strangers and start conversations. Somehow I managed.The way I described it was that I was wearing my reporter “hat” — much in the same way that volunteering or partaking in some kind of organized activity, there’s a construct. A reason for being there. Something to focus on other than you.I’m at my worst in large groups — parties, happy hours, trips. It’s not me. Part of what I challenged myself to do upon moving here was to scrap all notions of “me.” Because I would never do things like join recreational sports teams or go on group vacations or fill my calendar with social event after social event.But now after 5+ months of being at post, starting a job and being as “settled” as one can be in the Foreign Service, I find myself gravitating back to my old ways. The last thing I want to do after a long day at work — at a job that involves lots of communicating, you know, as the director of communications — is go out with a group of people.It exhausts me just thinking about it. I need down time. Either alone or with Kail, but just time to sit quietly, read, write and recharge — by doing whatever except be “on.”I used to (OK, still do) beat myself up over it. Question why I couldn’t be more sociable or like other people. Try to force myself to do things I don’t really want to do in an effort to fit in, make friends, be seen. Because if I don’t, how will I ever feel comfortable in this lifestyle?Well I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that forcing myself to do things because I think they’ll make me happy is not the way to go. And in fact can make me quite unhappy.I’ve read both Gretchen Rubin’s “Happiness Project” books, “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home,”and one of her mantras/commandments/secrets of adulthood (I forget which label she applies here) is “Be Gretchen.” Be yourself. Do what makes you happy — really — and not what you think will/should make you happy based on other people/their preferences.It sounds cheesy and maybe really obvious — what works for other people won’t necessarily work for you … duh. But sometimes it’s hard to get that.I love to spend time alone, in my own head, thinking and writing, or otherwise doing activities that are pretty solitary: running, reading, cooking/baking. Living in El Salvador has for the first time forced me to be part of a (small) running group — which I love and is essential to my happiness here — but my natural inclination is to fly solo.I prefer one-on-one interaction to large gatherings. I hate talking in front of crowds (meetings included) and being the center of attention. I was so anxious during the ceremony of our 35-person wedding when all eyes were on me. And Kail. But mostly me, obvs.introversion, wedding vow photo, ring placement photo, being the center of attention at your weddingAll eyes were on me. And I was crying!So what’s an “I” to do? How can someone who’s introverted adapt to a lifestyle where you’re constantly packing up and moving around, living in new places and meeting new people? I’m all ears.What about you — are you an introvert or extrovert?

Published by La Vie Overseas

I'm Natasha -- writer, runner and wife to a Foreign Service Officer with USAID. Current location: Frankfurt, Germany.

30 thoughts on “Introversion and Foreign Service Life

  1. Total and complete introvert. The past few weeks at FSI have been very hard for me. I loved my class, but having so much out and about time was very stressful. I feel now like I am still *recovering* from class and very much enjoying having some down time.As far as the moves? Well, I guess I feel like it can be stressful, but I’m generally so consumed with the move, I don’t think about anything else. And I think this lifestyle helps me, as it gets me out of my shell more than I would be if we did not move so much…and especially with the kids, I need that.

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    1. FSI was exhausting. Not just because of the difficulty/stress from studying and the test, but just because you are forced to talk for 4+ hours a day — and not even in English! Before I started my 8 weeks there I would joke with husband about how “stressful” it could possibly be, getting paid to learn a language for six months. But then once I was there, I couldn’t imagine having to do it for three times as long as I did.I agree with the fact that this lifestyle overall is good for introverts because we need (or I definitely do) to be forced out of my shell. Sometimes all it takes is that extra push!

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  2. Funny, I am working on a similar post! Many don’t believe me when I tell them I’m an introvert. Probably because I don’t mind speaking in front of groups, and I’m often the goofy girl in a group. (I just really, really enjoy making others laugh, and laughing period!) I also think it’s because people equate introversion with being shy, and we both know that’s not it at all. I think it’s just about how we recharge. What makes me an introvert is that, like you, people suck out my energy. I recharge by being by myself and mostly by being in nature. Quiet time! I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you are ashamed or something? If so, may I kindly say that I encourage you to continue with your mantra because I think that having extroverts in this world are just as important as having us introverts. It’s about balance, in my opinion!

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    1. Yeah I agree that people sometimes think being shy and being introverted are the same, but they’re not — it’s about how you get your energy and recharge: by being around people or by being alone. I’m not ashamed, but I sometimes feel … I don’t know, guilty for not doing more and going out more and spending so much time alone (or just with my husband). Because obviously having good-quality friendships is important, and I’m always worried that two years at a post really isn’t that much time so the pace at which relationships might develop at home doesn’t fit this lifestyle. Thanks for the pep talk!

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  3. I hear you. People often assume I’m an extrovert because I’m usually pretty bubbly and talkative, but parties, happy hours, etc always leave me feeling insecure and tired. For me, its about knowing my limits. Chris and I are both introverts but we also really like people and want to have friends too. We are most comfortable in our own house with a group of people we’ve hand-picked to hang out with–so we try to host brunches and playdates and dinners on a regular basis. I have a couple of really good friends who I will only meet for coffee dates one on one, because trying to hang out with them in a group is just way too weird for me. And I don’t do parties unless I have to. In a way, having a kid has saved me from myself because NO MORE HAPPY HOURS!! (at least for a few years).

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    1. I think knowing one’s limits is important. I know mine — I suppose I just second-guess myself sometimes! We have not done a ton of entertaining since arriving here, and it’s definitely something we’d like to do more of. We have hosted a couple couples over for dinner. But Kail and I are the same — we are more comfortable at a dinner-party-sized gathering than a party, party. I like happy hours, but more of the post-work, grab a beer with a couple coworkers rather than a full-on party, just earlier in the evening!I forget where I saw it but I clicked on a link to your Vietnamese summer rolls recipe for an easy dinner party. Stealing that idea! 🙂

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  4. I’m also an introvert. If I don’t get my alone time, I become a monster. I never thought about the social obligations of foreign service. Is there a lot of pressure to attend events and be social? Do you get a reputation as antisocial if you stick to yourself? I kind of figured actual diplomats were expected to be socially active but never imagined it extended to spouses anymore. Very interesting topic about foreign service life for those of us outside the foreign service.

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    1. Haha I am the same. Well, maybe not a monster but let’s just say I’m not pleasant. ;)I think back in the day there was more pressure/more of an expectation that diplomatic spouses (well let’s be honest — wives, in that time period) would host dinners, attend official functions and other social duties. I wouldn’t say there is pressure here to do anything, but I think it’s kind of like in any situation, the more you keep to yourself and decline invitations, the less you will be invited to things in the future. I think it’s just a matter of keeping a balance — doing what you’re comfortable with and making an effort to socialize in ways that fit that, like dinner parties or whatever else as another commenter posted.My husband works for USAID so there aren’t as many official functions, at least in the evenings, that he has to participate in, but for big all-hands-on-deck embassy events it’s expected that at least the diplomats participate. I do think that in the Foreign Service, a spouse’s “reputation” has a bigger reflection on the employee than in “regular” life back home, where your spouse’s coworkers probably don’t know anything about you until a few weeks into the job, and even then your lives can be pretty separate. But in the Foreign Service you’re a package and all the interaction, professional or social, is in large part with your spouse’s colleagues, superiors, etc. We live in the same communities, everyone works in the same place for the most part, all the kids go to the same schools. It’s a small world!

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  5. Great post! I’m much more of an extrovert but sometimes have introvert qualities that I’m hesitant to embrace. I think you make a good point and I’ve also read “The Happiness Project”, which revealed some helpful things to me. It’s interesting to read perspective from an introvert. My fiance is extremely introverted and sometimes we have a hard time balancing. But I’m learning and this was helpful 🙂

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    1. I was wondering whether you are an introvert or extrovert. I think it’s good to have someone to balance you out — you can push Rick to go out and do things more, and he can help carve out some quieter time for your relationship. It’s funny because you probably view running (and working out, at least Crossfit) as a very social activity and I view it as the opposite — “me” time!

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    1. As one of my internet friends, that doesn’t surprise me! ;)I was thinking about what your experience has been like since moving here — your social world is probably a little smaller compared to the embassy community, but similar in that you work and live (for the most part) and socialize together. But you’ve probably felt that moving somewhere totally new has just forced you to get out there and meet people (via the internet and otherwise) and do things. Whereas living in DC/Virginia my whole life, I pretty much had my circles of friends, my routine and rarely had to go outside my comfort zone.But yes, I agree, no need for all the hand-wringing. I always just feel guilty and that I should do this or that, but really, I should only do what I need to in order to be sane, like you said! Haha.

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  6. I’m very introvert too. I crave nothing more than (at least) 5 minutes of alone time with a perfect cup of coffee and a good book. I have learned to sacrifice that in the name of motherhood but the few times I can get it I savor it! IT is true that with this lifestyle you have to challenge yourself and put yourself “out there” but I always find it’s the best way to find everlasting friendships. The ones where you meet 7 years later with a couple of kids in tow and start a conversation where it left off in a different continent a long time ago.

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    1. How interesting! I would never have guessed from your blog because it always seems like you’re out and about doing things and organizing amazing themed parties for your boys. 🙂 But I guess that is part of motherhood.

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  7. I’m a total introvert. I turn down a lot of invitations and just hope that my real friends understand and appreciate when I do leave the house. I make the effort, though, to get out and meet people because I want some interaction. You can’t expect people to wait around forever trying to make friends with you.My husband’s an extrovert and it’s interesting to me that some of our best “couple friends” are other couples that are also one of each.

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    1. They say opposites attract! It’s comforting to hear that many of my FS blog friends are introverted too. I guess maybe the type of person who is more likely to have a blog is more likely to be introverted though!I guess I am just trying to find the balance between pushing myself outside my comfort zone a little but knowing my limits. But you’re right — true friends will understand and it’s important to make the effort since relationships are a two-way street. Thanks for commenting, and hi by the way!

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  8. I’m an introvert as well. I will say my Meyers-Briggs has moved into the very slightly extrovert at times after marrying my husband and I say it’s because I have to keep up with him and his extroverted self. I was a terrible bride. I could hardly smile I was so anxious. I hated everyone watching. I prefer to be in small groups too but I can definitely do the group thing when needed. It’s good to keep things balanced!

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    1. It’s interesting to see that there are so many introvert-extrovert pairs in the Foreign Service! I imagine having children has also pushed you on your introvert boundaries at times (just having to be involved in various children’s activities and play dates and other things). I agree — balance is necessary!

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  9. I am an introvert as well (Meyers-Briggs was pretty clear about that) and I completely understand what you are talking about. This was definitely difficult at times during our first post but helped by the fact that I worked inside the Mission, so I knew people that way, too. Just started month seven at FSI and am still being scolded for not talking more, but what talking I do is exhausting. I am very nervous about our upcoming post because the more I look for a job, the more things fall through, so I’m not sure I will have that connection. I *really* wish I could be an extrovert and at least make acquaintances easily, but I fear I will remain the same even after arriving at post. Sometimes I even wish we had children already because they seem to really facilitate camaraderie and socializing! That day will come though the one where I’m outgoing, as much as I want it to, most likely will not.

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    1. Wow I was only at FSI for 8 weeks — I can’t imagine 7 months! It was exhausting. I think a job helps provide a connection at post, but even without one you will probably find other ways to get involved and set up some kind of structure for yourself — whether it’s volunteering, exercise, etc. I know what you mean about kids. It seems like you have an automatic social circle built-in!

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  10. I am very much an introvert, despite constantly getting different MBTI scores (including lots of Es!). I absolutely need a couple of hours of complete down time every day after work just to recharge for the next day. I am not one for large groups (a problem for a PD officer, at times), but I can fake it with the best of them.

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    1. Yeah it’s interesting — I find that if I’m “forced” to do something social (cocktail party/reception, interviews, etc.) I can fake it and manage but then I really won’t want to go out or do something in a group on my own time.

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