5 Ways to Be Outgoing (in a culture that's not)

Pottery an hour away from my home in Kigali. Photo credits: Haili Kong

      Palpable fear. Palpable fear is the only way to describe my first Chinese hug. I spread my arms out, smiled gently, and crushed what could have been a damp towel (and, in fact, turned out be my Taiwanese host mother)

It was our first hug and, as it turned out, it was going to be our last.

To be clear, having your mother reject your affection is not something I'd recommend. Nonetheless, I’m happy that the awkward embrace happened. In the short term, it forced me to reconsider how I displayed affection in Taiwan. Long term, it began my journey to figure out how to be extroverted in China in a way that  wasn’t considered “physical assault." This post is the result of that journey. (It is also a pre-emptive attempt to avoid charges of physical assault)

At the time of the hug, however, I didn’t think I was beginning an adventure of self-discovery, I just felt betrayed. Here was this woman who, for all intents and purposes, was my Mom. She made breakfast, asked how school was, and had even begun asking me why I didn't have more female friends. And yet, when I went in to hug, she shuddered.

For the following couple of days, I blamed her for shunning my embrace. But, as the weeks went on, my casualty count as a Taiwanese exchange student continued to rise. Sneak hug on classmate : cry of fear. Front hug with history teacher : grimace of pain. Side hug with lunch lady: A low growl. And, the problems didn’t stop with physical embraces. My greetings to passing strangers were ignored, my waving at little kids was blocked by fearful parents, and my fist bumps were stared at with a mixture of terror and confusion.

So, I was presented with a dilemma in Taiwan. I liked being friendly. I liked connecting with new people. I simply had no idea how to do it.

Many of us are extroverted by nature. We gain energy from being with others and often particularly from meeting new people. However, as westerners, we are also taught growing up that being “friendly” means a certain set of thing: greeting strangers (good morning), cheering loudly for friends, and physically touching the person you are speaking with (a hug, high five, etc.). But what happens when the basic tools we use to channel extroversion are socially unacceptable? How can you be outgoing in a culture that… just isn’t?

Some cultures are significantly more reserved than others. However, the answer is not to become more reserved yourself.  For extroverts, we need to interact with others. And so, if we want to continue embracing our extroversion, we have to figure out how to operate like extroverts in the culture we’re in. Becoming a “reserved” extrovert isn’t easy; but over the past three years of insulting friends, family, and the occasional soy-milk vendor, I’ve learned a couple of tricks and have been taught a number more. I wish I’d known them before I went to Taiwan. If I had, I may have avoided a number of terrible, terrible hugs.

Here goes:

5 way to be Outgoing in a Culture that isn’t.

1. Find an extroverted role model and follow what he/she does


In Keith Ferrazi’s classic networking book - Never Eat Alone -  he explains that the best way to become more confident in conversation is to find a role-model and practice how they interact with others. While living in an introverted/reserved culture it's important to find someone that matches you socially. If, for example, you’re the loudest person in the room and you’re in Japan, find the loudest Japanese person in a room.  Of course, they will be different than you in specific actions; but, by learning from their actions (how they tell jokes, how they greet others, etc.) you can maintain your level of extroversion while keeping with cultural norms.

2.Be outgoing in the contexts that are appropriate/expected

In every culture there are places/events where it is more acceptable to be outgoing. In the U.S. parties and tail-gates might fill this role, whereas in  Chinese culture often banquets and family gatherings are the place where people are most outgoing. In particular it’s important to learn how people are outgoing in those situations. In Chinese banquets people who want to greet multiple people will go around toasting tables with a drink. Though saying “hello” to others is still appropriate - the act of toasting with a drink allows you to greet multiple people during the course of the night. Figuring this out takes time -  ask your friends, ask strangers, and listen. Figuring out these contexts isn’t immediately easy, but it is extremely worthwhile.

3. Be outgoing about what people enjoy to talk about 

In every culture, there is something that a significant portion of people love talking about. For software development culture (a sub-culture that is often reserved),  this is could be their favorite programming language or website. Just as in the midwest talking about college sports can generally lead to a number of conversations. You can channel your extroversion - but you need to channel it in a way that people appreciate.

4. Lower your expectations 

 Perhaps not the most thrilling piece of advice, it’s something you’re going to have to start doing. In a culture that is more reserved - whether that be a gaming culture or a Finnish library -  there may be lower expectations for opening interactions. If, for example, you are used to hugging someone at the end of a conversation (and you think it is a good indicator of how successful the conversation was) you may need to change to thinking that a handshake is enough. Lowering your expectations allows you to keep trying even when you don’t feel immediately accomplished.

5. Collect the stories of when you fail 

If you view failure as the seeds of hilarious stories, then you will be much more motivated to keep trying. Did you make a girl cringe when you  tried to give her a hug? Hilarious. Have you been verbally assaulted by a fruit-vendor? Fantastic. Do kids run from you at sight? (Okay, there’s probably something wrong with you at this point.) Making failing a goal helps keep your confidence up. Trying to be your natural, outgoing self in a culture that feels cold is hard. But the more you make a joke of the adventure, the better the process will be.

Recently, a lot of attention has been given to the difficulties introverts have in our extroverted culture (Check out Susan Cain’s Ted Talk on this topic). While this is a fair concern, extroverts face the same difficulties when they enter a culture that is more introverted. Many work environments, educational institutions, or foreign countries are reserved - and this poses a number of problems for the extroverts in them.

So this post is for the extroverts who live in a society that wasn't made for them.  We don’t need to deny our extroversion; Instead, with a couple of quick tools, we can be outgoing - even without traumatizing anyone else.

We should embrace our extroversion!  Just without, er, embracing anything else.

TravelingStephen Turban