Gender & Identity, Life

I found out the hard way that I can’t be an introvert in Iran

In Iran, if you can’t make small talk, you’re either a bad host or an invisible fly on the wall.

“چه قدر خش صحبت هستی!”

“You’re so well-spoken!”

The first time I heard a relative throw that Persian expression at me, I was dumbfounded. All my relatives were laughing at me, but I didn’t understand the joke. As someone who enjoys public speaking and debating, I would have taken it as a huge compliment if someone had told me that here in college. But back in Tehran, particularly when surrounded by my family, I don’t talk all that much.

At the time of that remark, I hadn’t uttered a single word.

My mother explained her uncle’s joke through her own laughter: he had rarely ever seen my speak in public settings, and so her uncle – someone who finds it difficult to stop talking – had sarcastically called me “well-spoken.”

I didn’t find that sardonic remark funny. I had been singled out and called out for not living up to familial, but more importantly cultural, expectations. Good-humored as the expression was, it made me more self-conscious, but also more self-aware.

Never before had the dichotomy between extrovert and introvert been so tangible to me. I am, by nature, an introvert, and have grown more introverted as I’ve grown older. In the U.S., in college, there are far fewer stigmas attributed to being an introvert than in Iran, where hosting, attending and indulging in family gossip at regular gatherings is the norm and the standard.

In Iran, if you can’t make small talk, you’re a bad host or, at best, an invisible fly on the wall.

As someone who abhors and persistently evades small talk, I’ve gotten better at playing this role, occasionally contributing to the steady flow of conversation as needed to keep it from getting stilted. But when the people around you are all at least 70 years old, there’s a generational barrier that makes small talk nearly impossible.

And as much as I’d like to contribute to a vehement debate about literature or history or international politics, most of the conversation is in Turkish, the native language for much of my Azerbaijani family – and a language I neither understand nor speak.

So it’s not always that I choose to not converse. Sometimes, I literally cannot.

But when I returned to Tehran this past summer, my first trip back as an official adult, people grew more aware of my introversion, and I have grown more aware of how much a cultural taboo introversion is. Chattiness is correlated with a greater intellect, so naturally, reticence is correlated with lesser intellect.

But that isn’t the case. I can easily offer input about the Iran nuclear deal or the Israel-Palestine conflict, or talk about the journalism I have done and continue to do. I don’t see the need to prove myself to be discernibly small or well-spoken. I refuse to talk simply for the sake of talking.

And if that means clashing with cultural norms, then as an Iranian-American I will just have to accept it.