When I was a little boy, my mom would take me to the local grocery store. While there it was nearly inevitable that we would see someone we knew given that the big city where we shopped and attend school was only about 20,000 people strong when brimming to full capacity. To put the size of this town in perspective, it seemed huge compared to my home community of only about 248 people, but in reality was only about one-tenth of one percent of the population of New York. Okay, that is a horrible comparison, but hopefully you get the point. This was a small town so we were constantly running into people we knew. No big deal. Unless you are an introvert.
When greeting someone we ran into at the grocery store, I vividly remember hiding behind my mother’s leg when she would try to introduce me, or if the other person asked what I was doing for the summer. Any time attention was directly toward me. Now, before you conjure the mental image of me as a 17-year-old hiding behind my mother’s rear, these memories reside within my five to seven-year-old consciousness, or at least I hope that is when it stopped. In these moment, my mom would say, “Oh, he’s just shy”. For years I used this example with students when talking about how a simple statement we make can have lasting implications on another (typically followed by a life-changing and inspirational call to be a communal source encouragement to others). My mother’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
For years, social functions gave me differing levels of anxiety. Sometimes low. Sometimes high. But the simple truth was that for me, meeting new people and getting to know them was a challenging undertaking. Don’t worry about me. I eventually took some friendly advice and visited a professional counselor who transformed the way I see everyday existence. I should have gone years ago and I could have reclaimed those last 10 years of my life.
Social interaction was difficult for me, but for introverts, just the idea of cultural relocation is terrifying and exhausting. Terrifying because we know what is coming – meeting new people (tough) and developing relationships (something we sometimes would rather forego). Exhausting because we overthink these potential interactions, assume the worst, struggle to maintain composure while talking, and then second-guess our performance afterward. Wait, that’s just everyday interaction – not to mention the fact that in a cultural relocation we need to learn to master these social gatherings with people of immense diversity.
Herein lies a major struggle for so many who relocate. These folks (maybe you) may be a high-performing employee, thus giving you sufficient reason to select this person as the best candidate to close a major deal across the ocean. Kind of like how we sometimes elevate the college professor with a strong research background to department chair or dean. There is a really good chance this expert in his or her field has no leadership experience and only enough social skills to make it from sun-up to sun-down. Okay, some personal bias coming through there. The point is that if someone struggles with social inclusion (meeting new and diverse others and developing meaningful relationships over time) in his or her home culture, cultural relocation is likely going to throw this person into a tailspin.
The good news is that we can predict these factors and prepare someone before they leave for an incredible experiences. The bad news is that these characteristics sometimes go overlooked or are only exacerbated upon relocation. The trick to help these folks is two-fold.
1. Professional Help
That’s right, this person needs counseling. I fought this for years, but wish I had gone as a very young man so that I could have enjoyed the full richness of life through early adulthood. Likewise, if this person is going to thrive across cultural relocation, where social interaction requires the ability to meet and greet with diverse others, we need some professional help. I am not a counselor and never claim to be. Fortunately for my marriage, I am married to one. However, there have been many times when I have advised, or even literally led, someone to a counselor. This type of individual change takes time, so be patient with this employee or with yourself as you work through long-seated self-concepts (i.e. my mom saying I was shy).
2. Practice in Safe Environment
Wise global humanitarian training organizations that are experienced in sending folks abroad know that if someone expresses an interest in global work, one of the best indicators of longevity is whether or not that person is currently engaged in similar work domestically. If a person is not actively serving others in his or her community – people who are vastly different from his or her demographic, that person is not likely to just make a 180-degree change in lifestyle, daily routine, and acceptance of diversity. Smart. If you are about to launch into a new culture, do your best to first of all start getting out to initiative conversations with neighbors and then move on to initiative conversations with others on the opposite side of the tracks. This practice will really pay off while on the field. You will learn that you can actually do this and the future interactions will come much easier after these confidence boosters.
3. Don’t Overthink It
No, you can’t read another person’s mind. It doesn’t matter how many sci-fi shows you have watched to the contrary. Therefore, when you meet someone new, give it your best try and then move on. Don’t spend the next few hours thinking or worrying about whether or not you did everything just right or what that person thought about you, how you dressed, what you said, how you shuffled your feet nervously. Due to introverted-induced anxiety, you are likely just making a bigger deal of the situation than it really was. Relax.