Brazilians tend to describe their culture as being friendly and social, and in general, I find this to be pretty accurate. People seem to always have time for conversation, whether in passing or over a cafezinho, and there’s never a problem in inviting you to their neighbor’s cousin’s goddaughter’s party — the more, the merrier. However, I am naturally an introvert, meaning I need time alone to regain energy. I am also often shy. This can be a problem here.
The extroverted, friendly culture is not new to me. Growing up in a Mexican family, I was expected to greet every person with a kiss, and I knew there was never an official end time for barbecues and parties. Still, I don’t think the familiarity with the customs makes it any easier. If anything, I feel even more abnormal about the fact that I have reservations about saying hi to every single person I see down the hall, or that I get tired of being with a big group of people after a few hours. Everyone else does it, why can’t you?
Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, says that in times of high stress, we tend to revert to our natural selves. This was definitely true for me when I arrived in São Paulo; in fact, I became an extreme version of myself. I was too shy to talk to people with my accented Portuguese, and for awhile, I wouldn’t even leave the apartment alone. I’ve gotten better, but it’s still a hurdle.
I’m fortunate to have a partner that understands and respects my boundaries. But around others who don’t know me so well, I worry that I come off as too cold or rude. I feel I should wear a sign that says, “I like you, I just don’t want to talk.”
I realize it’s unrealistic to say, “Screw it, let me hide in my hole,” when I’m in a country where social interaction is pretty much required in order to get anywhere. But living here has caused me to pay more attention to my internal voice and determine when I’m ok to push myself to talk to people, and when it’s best to stay home. I also have to remind myself that my personality is not abnormal, I am not abnormal, and that it’s okay not to talk as much as everyone else (seems to be). I had to practice these habits when I lived in the U.S., also an extroverted country, but here in Brazil, it seems even more necessary.
A few weeks ago at a work training, we had to discuss the general concept of speaking. The Brazilian girl next to me, who I had always found to be a bit cold and reserved around me, said, “I don’t really like to speak much.” Internally, I laughed at the irony of my assumptions, and wanted to hug her in solidarity. But, being a fellow introvert, I left her alone.