I’m shy. It’s one of those personality traits that have been with me for so long that talking about it feels like talking about an old friend. Your friend drives you crazy, says stupid things and can embarrass you at the drop of a hat, but you love her and the fact that she’ll always be there is comforting.
Even when I went through my preteen and high school dramatics of, “It’s not called being shy. It’s called being an introvert,” I still knew who I was, even if I didn’t want to admit it.
And you know something? I don’t hate being shy anymore. Now that I’m older I see the benefits of being a bit quiet and cautious in my every day interactions, such as in the types of friends I attract, the jobs I get, the way people see me, and the way I see myself.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t terrified that going abroad would bring out the worst aspects of my shyness. I am aware of some of my darker tendencies, like the days-on-end absolute refusal to speak, the sudden overwhelming urge to never leave my house, the reaction to meeting new people that results in labels like “stuck-up” or “boring,” and the feeling of failure that comes along with those tendencies. I’d been told that moving abroad doesn’t change people; that such a dramatic decision can even result in bringing out people’s worst sides. And those inner-traits made my decision to leave home and travel the world all the more nerve-wracking.
But now I’ve been through it, and I’ve learned what being abroad as a shy girl means. I’ve tested myself by leaving my comfort zone, and what I’ve discovered shocked even me.
1. IT ROCKS! You’re on your own.
When you are at home, you can rely on your parents or your friends or your boyfriend/girlfriend to do things for you. Overseas you can’t. You have to do things for yourself. This will force you out of your comfort zone, and sometimes it really, really sucks, but when you suddenly realize that you took a train from Poland to Germany all on your own, when you wouldn’t even drive to the mall without a friend or relative at home, you’ll feel accomplished.
You won’t lose your shyness totally, but with more and more things that you know, “I can do,” under your belt, you’ll realize that your shyness was never really stopping you. There’s a lot you can accomplish as a human being, regardless of your personality.
2. IT SUCKS! Sometimes you still fail at things that normal people really shouldn’t fail at.
The “I can’t leave the house because I’m too anxious,” and the “I came into this store to look for something but I’m so nervous I have to leave,” moments don’t go away just because you leave your country. If you are mega-shy, then you know what I mean. There are days when you wake up, you’re nervous, and you have stuff to do, but it’s all so overwhelming. You go to the post-office to mail a package, or the local college to sign up for a course, or that new restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, but when you reach the front door, you can’t go in. Or maybe you do go in, but you take one look around at the crowd of people and the frowning customer service woman and you blanch. Before anyone has the chance to help you, you run back out the door.
If you’re a self-confident, not-slightly-crazy individual then you probably think I sound pathetic. You’re thinking *eyeroll, “Man up, woman.” But if you’re my type of crazy: the socially anxious, shy, nervous, introverted variety of crazy, then I’m sure you can relate.
What I’ve learned is that you just have to roll with it. Don’t beat yourself up. If you fail on day one to mail your package because the weird Hungarian postal service was just too scary, don’t hate yourself. Give it a few days. Come back when you’re feeling more confident, maybe bring a friend.
Keep in mind that being in another country occasionally is scary. Just because I’ve also gotten nervous and ran out of U.S. post offices too, doesn’t mean an expat will look at you askance for doing it in China, because, hey, even the mundane can be tough for confident people too if they are working with language barriers and unfamiliar social customs.
Breath deep and forgive yourself, because if you fail day one and succeed day two, then there is really not much to forgive anyway.
3. IT ROCKS! Different cultures read “shy” in different ways.
In Midwest America, shyness is pretty abhorred. You need to be confident, loud, and funny to be successful. Anything short of this ideal is something to be corrected: “Why are you so quiet?,” “If you were more outgoing, more guys/girls would like you,” and “She’s nice, but kind of boring.” Sound familiar? If not, you’re lucky. Growing up quiet in a culture where loudness is key can be pretty disheartening for young people. At least, it was for me. There’s nothing wrong with a culture that prizes self-confidence. Confidence certainly gets things done, and confident people tend to be good leaders. But that’s just not me.
So imagine my surprise when I moved overseas and heard things like, “You’re so nice,” “She was probably popular in school because everyone likes her,” “You’re a good teacher because you’re such a good listener,” and “She seems so smart.”
The first couple of times I heard phrases like this, I actually laughed out loud. Popular? Are you kidding me? But phrases like this point out the different ways that different cultures respond to shyness. What is seen as quiet, unhappy, or lacking self-confidence in the U.S. is seen as being nice, friendly, or smart in other cultures. Crazy, huh? It really gives a girl a boost in self-esteem.
4. IT SUCKS! Sometimes people still recognize you for what you are, shy.
You’re chatting with some newfound friends and someone points it out, “Are you having fun? You’re not talking much.”
Being older helps with moments like this. A question like the one above would have forced me deep into my shell when I was a kid, but now as an adult I’ve come to accept my personality and even love it.
Now when I’m faced with a comment like this, I respond honestly and without embarrassment (or at least with very little embarrassment) by saying something like, “I’m having fun listening to you guys,” or “Yeah, I can be quiet sometimes. Just enjoying the company.”
I know it sounds weird and like the title of some irritating self-help book by a guy who was never shy to begin with, but you can’t stop being shy. All you can do is be confident about your shyness. If you don’t care about it, then it really doesn’t matter if anyone else does.
5. IT ROCKS! People don’t know you overseas.
This may seem like such an obvious point, but it can be wonderful and liberating.
At home, everyone knows you didn’t bring a date to semi-formal, or that you usually let your friends do most of your talking for you, or that you won “Most Serious” in your middle school yearbook, but overseas, no one knows any of that.
They might figure it out quickly. They might recognize that you’re shy or weird or maybe you even decide to open up and willingly tell them about the dark days of your youth, haha. But they still don’t know that person that you were. They only know the person you are now, and the person you are now, overseas, out of your comfort zone, is going to be different from the person you were back home.
And no matter how much or how little you want or expect to change, that difference can mean the world. You’re still you. You’re just you without everyone’s perception of you being affected by the things you said or did as a thirteen-year-old.
But don’t hate on thirteen-year-old you either. She has turned into the “you” you are now. The still-pretty-quiet, globe-trotting, slightly more confident version of you that thirteen-year-old you would have been proud to turn into.