Introverts in a cross-cultural workplace

KAROLIINA KORHONEN IS THE ILLUSTRATOR of a popular online comic series called Finnish Nightmares: An Irreverent Guide to Life’s Awkward Moments. Everyone I know who sees it forwards it to me. Even more than a year after the comic strip was first published, there are still people who think, “Ha ha, that’s so introverted, just like Jill!” Matti, the main character in Korhonen’s comic strip, is a classic introvert, just like Korhonen herself. Incessant little dramas are being played out in his mind every day: “I’ll be late if I don’t leave the apartment now, but there are people in the hallway . . . what do I do?” or, “I’d like to try some, but please . . . I don’t want to talk with the salesman,” or even “Why are you so close to me? Oh my God! You just touched me!” When someone is moving away from the seat next to him, on the other hand, he thinks, “Did I do something wrong to make them not want to sit with me?” 

Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, in Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, wrote that cultures can be divided into those tending toward introversion or extroversion. Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and other northern European countries are true introverted cultures; America, Cuba, and many other countries are considered extroverted cultures. 

What’s interesting is that even if we’re born in extroverted societies, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of people are extroverts. For example, according to NERIS Analytical’s estimates, there are actually 0.004 percent more introverts in the US than extroverts. After learning that the number of people used to compute this sample was more than 22 million, I felt a little relieved. Even in what, to me, originally looked like an overly outgoing American culture, about half of the population is just like me—introverted. At least 11 million people can understand what I go through! For introverts who were born and raised in East Asia like me, and who have a career tied to an outgoing America, our work experience is essentially a struggle with an extroverted culture. After my time in the US studying and working, when I returned to Taiwan, I started working in a sports agency, where I was responsible for introducing Taiwanese players to Major League Baseball. Later, I worked in a state government job. Right now, I’m working in a US- headquartered organization.

Even after spending such a long time in the States, I still think of myself as being clearly incompatible with this extroverted culture. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain brought up a classic example of introverts situated in extroverted cultures—Harvard Business School. She described the business school as a place that prides itself on “cultivating leaders who will change the world,” where students “plan nightclub events and parties all day long, or otherwise, just talk about the super- fun excursions they just went on. Harvard Business School strives hard to have its students turn into people who are good at, and love, talking. Take for example that they teach students how to carry themselves with 100% confidence when they don’t have enough information or when they’re only 55% certain about something.” This point is really pain- inducing for the Harvard Business School’s introverts. Although my alma mater has a long history with several reputable programs and plenty of outstanding alumni, it’s definitely not like Harvard, whose alumni occupy 20 percent of the executive spots listed among Fortune 500 companies.

Even so, my first cultural shock happened right away there, during my first course, when the professor was explaining the class grading criteria. Thirty percent of my grade in that class was for in- class participation. “Class participation means attendance, right? That’s what Taiwanese professors mean when they write it,” I thought. I’d soon be struggling to stay afloat. It turns out that in graduate school, if you didn’t want to come to class, you didn’t have to, but if you did go, you were required to speak. It didn’t matter whether it was discussing the subject in small- groups, giving presentations in front of the class, or asking the professor questions about the lecture content. I worked my tail off, but I just couldn’t participate that way. When I first started, I thought it was just a language barrier, but in fact, these obstacles were not cropping up in my personal or work life. I once thought that it was a problem in my study routine, but after being in my program for three months, one of my professors told me that my performance was on par with my classmates.

Several years later, I read Susan Cain’s Quiet, and that is when I figured out that the reason I struggled was because this wasn’t a teaching system suited for introverts. From school to the workplace, countries with extroverted cultures believe in an ethos that “a fluid ability for expression and a great social interaction ability means you’ll build a successful person.” For a while now, the industry trends have been changing. When the influences from the tech industry became increasingly apparent, the general public’s attention slowly shifted from the Wall Street model where people can speak with charm, to the streamlined and pragmatic ethos of Silicon Valley. More and more companies, such as Pixar and Microsoft, have adopted a flexible office setup, allowing workers to have a suitable space for group discussion or independent thinking.

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