Especially during my childhood and teenage years I experienced severe social anxiety. Asking a stranger on the street for directions was as much of a challenge for me as asking for the bill in a restaurant, doing a presentation in school or starting a conversation with one of my classmates. Whenever I was confronted with such a situation where I was supposed to say something to someone I didn’t know well or where attention was directed towards me I felt an inner paralysis which made it impossible for me to act in a way which is considered to be normal by most. I felt so insecure and nervous, extremely afraid of bad judgment by others.
My whole life I have been confronted with the questions: Why are you so shy? Why are you so calm? Why don’t you say more? Those questions make obvious that introverted behavior is not considered to be the social norm by many. Think about it. How often do you hear the questions: Why are you so loud? Why do you talk so much? Hardly ever. This world is rather made for extroverts. They are the ones who get noticed and they are the ones who are more likely to get what they want. In school most of the times when I knew the answer to a question the teacher was asking I was just too shy to raise my hand and say it. And I knew the answer pretty often. It has always been hard for me to express my needs to people. I felt (and still feel sometimes) like an outsider, I felt strange and disconnected to myself and others.
How Jamaica taught me that talking to people isn’t as bad as expected
When I was 19 years old I traveled to Jamaica for five months to do volunteer work. I had finished school by then and wanted to do something different before I went to university. The time in Jamaica was life changing for me in so many aspects. Of course it was very frightening at first as I traveled such a far distance all by myself for the first time. And everything was so different. The way how people interacted with each other was totally new to me. Everybody seemed to be so familiar with each other as if they were all friends or family. The distance between people seemed to be a lot smaller and easier to overcome, compared to society at home. Social interaction was more natural, more easy-going, less formal. I experienced that it was perfectly normal to talk to strangers everywhere.
In such an environment it was easier for me to overcome my anxiety. Even though I had to get used to the different mentality first, the inviting atmosphere made me feel comfortable enough to talk to people. The warmth of the people, the way they approached me and talked to me made me feel less awkward and less afraid of judgment. I felt welcome. Social interaction appeared natural and less forced.
What needs to be mentioned too is that in fact I had no choice other than talking to people. Because first of all many people talked to me as I was a foreigner and of course I was answering them. But also because talking to people was just necessary to accomplish certain things. For example in order to find the right taxi to go home I had to ask people where it was departing from. Neither were there signs indicating the location nor could I google that. So that was actually an excellent practice for me. Soon I got used to it and found out it wasn’t as bad as expected to talk to people (what a surprise).
My happy place
Nowadays I know that one reason why social interaction in the Caribbean (but also many other places) is so different from the one I experience in Western Europe is because values differ. Because of how the system is functioning family, community and friends play a vital role for survival. People need to support each other as they can’t always rely on the state. On the contrary, individualism is highly valued in Western Europe which does have advantages but which can also cause us to distance ourselves from each other. The result can be loneliness or having difficulties when it comes to social interaction.
The non-judgemental, warm and relaxed atmosphere I experience in the Caribbean makes me feel comfortable in my skin. I feel more able to talk to people and to connect. I feel more secure. The barriers disappear. Whenever I return from a visit to the Caribbean my social batteries are fully charged and social interaction feels so easy. I am full of positive energy. These batteries get weaker over time but fortunately, my social skills improved a lot over time. However, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to travel to beautiful places like Jamaica to experience things and get to know myself better.
What definitely also helps me to connect to myself and others is the music and dancing I experience in the Caribbean. It just makes me feel so good. Happy and free of worries. The minute the music enters my head I get carried away. Far away. On a beautiful journey which is incomparably mind-blowing. I see the world with different eyes. But that’s a topic for another time.