Saturday, May 12, 2012

Introvert Saturday: The Collision of Introversion, Culture, and Confrontation

About the author: Alina Sato is a pastor's wife and a nurse in a pediatric intensive critical care unit. She finds her solace in quiet days on the sofa with a good book, long walks with her dog, or behind her camera lens. She brings together her love for photography and writing at A Pilgrim's Lens.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning as I walked towards the farmer’s market before heading to church. I heard lively music, saw bright flowers and fabrics, and could almost taste the fresh-picked fruit. As I walked, I saw a father with his two young sons; the older son stood to the side while the father wrestled with his younger son on his lap. At first, it appeared they were simply rough-housing as fathers and sons often do. But it became quickly apparent that the father was quite angry, and the wrestling culminated in the father giving his son a hefty shake, yelling at the boy, and then yelling at anyone and everyone, “I can’t handle it!!!”

I stopped, frozen in moral dilemma. I am a pediatric ICU nurse. I have seen children in the awful aftermath of abuse, and the cases are beyond heartbreaking. What should I do? What could I do? Do I intervene in some way? The behavior teetered on the border of abuse but it was a fuzzy line. It was, at best, a decent father caught in a bad moment of public frustration with his very rowdy children; at worst it was a father caught in an abusive cycle. A woman next to me said, “Those boys, they don’t listen.” I had no idea what transpired before I saw the father’s angry outburst. I ended up just staring like everyone else in the growing audience, at least to let this father know that people could see what was happening. He quickly gathered his children and left. I felt badly for all three of them.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this incident. Was I obligated to intervene, and if so, how? Some friends say they would have spoken up immediately. Why was I so hesitant, despite my deep conviction that what I was witnessing was wrong?

As an introvert, I have to wonder if my lack of response in this case was at least partly due to my need to think carefully through my words of confrontation before I deliver them. I’ve heard that introverts go into “throttle-down” mode in situations of crisis, which can prevent us from acting rashly but can also, unfortunately, slow us down when immediate action is required.

People often tell me, “You’re such a nice person. I can’t imagine you ever getting mad.” While this comment is usually presented as a compliment, there are instances where the real message is, “You need to be tougher with other people.” When I hear this, I consistently think the same things: 1.) I wonder just how soft do I come across to others; 2.) Just because I’m on the quieter side doesn’t mean I don’t know how to choose my battles – I just choose them very, very carefully; and 3.) Yes, they are right, to a certain degree. Generally speaking, it takes me a considerable amount of time to get to a point where I feel internally and externally prepared for a direct confrontation, because as an introvert, I need to sort through all my thoughts and I need to feel that I have prepared my words fairly well.

I also had to wonder if my lack of response at the farmer’s market was also partly due to my cultural upbringing. I grew up in a Taiwanese home, married into a Japanese family, and I now attend a Japanese-American church. Both the Taiwanese and Japanese cultures are strongly shame-based. There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, ‘tiu-lien,’ which means to lose face or suffer humiliation. It is shameful not only to be the one to ‘tiu-lien,’ but it is also shameful to be the one to cause another person to ‘tiu-lien.’ In both cultures, you have to learn how to confront others’ shortcomings and sins in such a way that will not cause them to lose too much face, lest you also bring shame upon yourself as one who is insensitive, overly disrespectful, and/or too overbearing. It is both a blessing and a curse to have this as a predominant cultural mentality.

Some cases of confrontation come with the luxury of time to think through the anticipated conversations, while others do not. The challenge, it seems, is to identify and utilize the strengths that one’s personality type and culture can offer to carry out confrontation in a timely, sensitive, and God-honoring way.

What do you think? How do you respond in situations that demand an immediate reaction? Do you think introversion and extroversion is a factor in those reactions? Do you also have certain cultural interpretations of confrontation? How do they help and/or hurt?