In my five months of living in Barranquilla, I have found myself face to face with a conundrum. I like Barranquilla. I revel in its exuberance, its festivity, and its warmth. I value these and think that my own country could benefit from them. However, I have also developed the undeniable feeling that I struggle to keep up and fit in. Even days that have outwardly been filled with the most positive experiences often leave me feeling totally drained.
Looking through articles on Barranquilla Life I see reflections of this tension from other expats. People who balance liking the city with a healthy dose of feeling lost, bemused and sometimes upset by it. In many ways this is hardly surprising. Moving to a new city in a new country is always going to bring its challenges. And Barranquilla does seem to have quite a range of possible obstacles to choose from. The different culture, the climate and relative lack of infrastructure are just some of the things that may unnerve those of us who are relatively ‘fresh off the boat’.
When discussing the difficulty of moving somewhere we often point the finger at culture. We talk about ‘cultural differences’ and of experiencing ‘culture shock’. Environmental factors such as heat and insecurity are also easy to pick out. However, we often don’t examine enough the role that personality can play in how we settle into a new city.
One of the central ideas for psychologists talking about personality is the theory of extraversion and introversion. This holds that the world can be split neatly into two; on the one side, there are the extraverts, loud, outgoing types who thrive in large social groups. On the other there are introverts. More reserved and quieter, these tend to enjoy solitary activities in less stimulating environments. This theory recently gained an elevated space in the public imagination with the phenomenal success of Susan Cain’s 2012 book and subsequent TED talk ‘The Power of Introverts’.
Cain argued that whether you’re an extravert or an introvert affects not only your personality but also the type of environment you’re likely to thrive in. She claims that her own society, the U.S.A, is a culture that values extraverts above introverts and is therefore filled with spaces designed for the former to the detriment of the latter. The popularity of open plan offices, she argues, is an example of this.
While Cain’s claims about the U.S being a relatively extraverted culture seem true – it definitely is, compared to my own country, England, –it pales in comparison in terms of extraversion when put beside Barranquilla. People born on the Caribbean Coast are the definition of exuberant, gregarious and extremely sociable. They shout, sing, blare their horns and live to an almost constant soundtrack of lively music.
Thinking about this has made me wonder if what Cain argues about the US is even truer here. Whether introverts may find living in Barranquilla more challenging than most.
Finding quiet spaces can certainly be a challenge. In my own personal quest for them I have squeezed my findings down to a particular Juan Valdez in the earliest hours of the morning and weekday Crepes and Waffles between 2:30 and 4. My house, as much as I love it with its salsa rehearsals, whistling parrot, and flow of incoming neighbours and friends, doesn’t make the cut. I also wonder whether the relative extraversion of Barranquilleros means that there are fewer activities available for introverts such as myself. Places where I would usually go at home – libraries, parks, small, cosy cafés – seem to be in shorter supply here than other places I have lived. Furthermore, with the lack of quiet spaces other activities that I usually enjoy – such as reading – are often difficult to do. Finally, in social situations where extraversion is the norm, introverts here can often end up feeling that they just don’t quite fit in.
This is not to say that introverts cannot enjoy life in Barranquilla. In many ways, living somewhere that is so totally different to your personality is an extremely rich experience. It allows you to learn, grow and experience things that you never would in the safety of your comfort zone. Furthermore, while it would be both impossible and undesirable to completely change your personality type, extraversion and introversion are flexible traits that can evolve over time and circumstances. Introverts in Barranquilla may find that life becomes easier as they adapt to new and different ways of being.
Reflecting on our personality types and how it comes into play with the cities we live in can help us give a deeper understanding of why we might be feeling how we do when the explanation of ‘cultural differences’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it. For introverted individuals, recognising the role that your personality plays can ultimately help you to better navigate life in Barranquilla. If you need to live in Juan Valdez every morning because it’s the only quiet place you know, then do it. (I’ll see you there.) If you sometimes feel exhausted from even the most positive of social interactions, or resent even the most joyful of music being played in Jumbo, then that’s also ok.
More broadly, as a community that is comprised of both extraverts and introverts, foreigners and locals, we can all benefit from understanding the different challenges that each of us face in the city we currently call home. The more Barranquilla continues to provide for each of its members, with their myriad needs, interests, and personalities, the greater and richer a city it will become.