In Defense of the Introverts

I just listened to this podcast episode from Australia’s Radio International series Big Ideas, and let me tell you, it was a breath of fresh air. It’s called ‘Extrovert bias: it’s all around us’, and it’s a rebroadcast from a 2012 recording of Susan Cain’s discussion of her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking at the RSA, or the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
The book had slipped under my radar, but I’m glad to have encountered her ideas in this talk. In her book (which I plan to read), Cain discusses the personal and social value of introversion, and she worries that extroversion has come to be valued in school, the workplace, and in the arts sometimes to the near-exclusion of all else. While she agrees that both introversive and extroversive personality traits are valuable, she thinks we would all benefit from renewed appreciation of the great creative and intellectual accomplishments introversion can help us attain.
As was abundantly clear from audience questions and from Cain’s summaries of her readers’ emails, many find her insights helpful and validating. There are just so many introverted people out there navigating a society which often seems structured to exclude them. It seems that you can hardly get a job, get a promotion, or get your inventions, your work, and your ideas taken seriously without running the rigorous gauntlet of ‘putting yourself out there’: schmoozing, gathering contacts, selling yourself, and otherwise being a go-getter. For an extrovert, this process is generally lots of fun; for an introvert, it can often be awkward, embarrassing, tedious, terrifying, or just plain miserable.
Sometimes I feel that way because I’m an introvert too… I think. Or at least partly so. As Cain points out, introversion and extroversion are not really manifested in people as a simple dichotomy. Extroverts are not 100% extroverted all the time, it’s just that people consider themselves or others extroverts because, on balance, they tend to exhibit extrovert traits. Same goes for introverts. So how do we know whether we are extroverts, introverts, or that diplomatically conceived third category, ambiverts (people who exhibit both types of personality traits more or less equally)?

And anyway, why should we care? 
Let’s address both questions by exploring what people generally mean by introversion and extroversion, and see if we can find anything useful by exploring the distinction.
Here’s how the Myers and Briggs Foundation website (after Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs, creators of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test derived from Carl Jung’s theories) briefly summarizes the difference between the two: ‘Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).’
To find out more, let’s take the introvert / extrovert Myers-Briggs test to see what happens. Now, I, for one, don’t place much stock in the results of personality tests like these nor do I plan any part of my life around them. However, job applicant tests, marriage counseling, workplace policies, and so on are often crafted around these tests, so as a practical matter, it’s important to know if they’re useful, useless, or even downright harmful. So how about we give them a little trial run?
Well, I didn’t end up taking the Myers-Briggs MBTI test on the official(?) website since I’m too frugal (cheap?) to spend the $50 they’re charging, but I took several other similar free tests based on their work, and I get the same result every time: INTP. Let’s all take one and see what happens.
Here’s how one site described my results: ‘The INTP personality type is fairly rare, making up only three percent of the population, which is definitely a good thing for them, as there’s nothing they’d be more unhappy about than being “common”. INTPs pride themselves on their inventiveness and creativity, their unique perspective and vigorous intellect. Usually known as the philosopher, the architect, or the dreamy professor, INTPs have been responsible for many scientific discoveries throughout history.’
Now for a person with my interests, I find the results pleasing and even flattering, and find much to identify with in this description. I also feel quite certain that these personality type descriptions are written to pander and seem applicable to just about everyone who reads them, like horoscopes, so that their satisfied audience keeps coming back for more.

So are the terms introvert and extrovert (and ambivert) useless, a load of BS, little more than psychobabble? Perhaps they are. Or, perhaps they may have been originally, but have come to refer to more useful and interesting concepts since they entered into common discourse. The way Cain uses the terms in her talk seem more to have to do with common sense, day to day observations of people by other people. Maybe they’re closer in meaning to everyday terms like ‘shy’, ‘reserved’, or ‘outgoing’: less technical and categorical, with more shades of meaning. Thinking of the terms this way, I like them better already.

We can also test the introversion/extroversion hypothesis another way: we can look at how we go about our to day to day lives and self-sort our habits of personality into the introverted, having to do with the time we spend alone, in our own heads, and at a distance from other people, and the extroverted, having to do with the time we spend with other people and feeling connected to them, and see which term might fit our overall personalities best. Or, we can run this test with others, by giving others a list of our behaviors and having our friends sort them. Think of those general behaviors that mostly make up how you spend your day, and see what you come up with. Here are some of mine, self-sorted:
I spend quite a bit of time alone, love to have lots of projects and tasks to work on, and tend to most enjoy those which can just as well or even better alone. I love to write, but never end up going to writer’s circles, workshops, or reading clubs though I constantly tell myself I should. I spend months apiece making art quilts that rarely make it onto a wall, because I can’t bring myself to go to galleries and ‘sell’ my work by trying to convince people I’m a ‘real’ artist who deserves to have my work shown. I’m uncomfortable with cliques and generally avoid them, and the moment I feel pressured to adopt the interests, attitudes, and tastes of a group of people, I flee. I’m very interested in many social, political, and intellectual movements and follow theme closely, but I never feel like going to marches and protests even if I support the cause, and I’ve spent many miserable hours at the socializing portions of such otherwise interesting events as Skepti-Cal and Meet a Scientist because I can’t bring myself to jump in on others’ conversations, so then I feel out of place, and then, remembering the uncomfortable awkwardness, I don’t go back. Same goes for Meetup groups organized around interests I share. I generally spend at least the first half of my first day off my day job alone, and often the whole day, even if I had been telling myself all week I really, really need to get out more. So, with all this alone time I like to spend, and with my awkwardness and shyness in so many social situations, I must be an introvert.
And yet… I have many friends, because in addition to enjoying the security and peace of lots of alone time, I love people. I find them fascinating and I crave companionship, and can’t go more than a few days without socializing before I start to feel lonely and depressed. I love hanging out with friends, of course, especially one on one and in small groups. I also love going to small to medium size parties so long as good friends are there, and/or as long as there are hosts that are solicitous of guests, spotting those who are bashfully hanging out in the corner, inviting and facilitating but not forcing them to take part in conversation. I really love meeting interesting strangers. I love to travel, and almost always pick large cities as my destination, spending almost the whole day every day out and about exploring. And most of all, I love getting deeply into conversation, and enjoy it much more than small talk; in fact, I find the latter boring. As long as all parties involve share a real interest in the subjects under discussion and so long as they’re being genuine, I’m the first to show up and the last to leave. So… I must be an extrovert too.
How would you sort these traits? Would you sort them as I do here? And do you think that, given these list of traits, I would fall more on one side of the divide than the other?
Or, am I an ambivert?

Perhaps. But I’m willing to bet that most of you who took the self-test easily found a substantial list of introverted and extroverted traits manifested in your own life, and probably wouldn’t class yourself as mostly one or the other. Besides, separating these personality traits into two categories may be a mistake in the first place, since many traits generally considered introversive contain both self-contained and social aspects (after all, isn’t reading a book alone also intimately getting to know what another person thinks and feels, and doesn’t that make it a social activity? Isn’t that also true for preferring to stay home and write pieces for others to read instead of public speaking, or donating to worthy causes instead of personally appearing at protests, and so on?) and vice versa. It’s probably true that most people consider themselves a combination of introvert and extrovert, although there have been many studies on introversion, extroversion, and related traits that seem to indicate there are real phenomena of personality that these concepts usefully point to, originating from the way our brains are structured and probably influenced quite a bit by personal experience.

So what to do with all this often nebulous, often contradictory information? Despite the problems of talking about introversion and extroversion as distinct things, I think Cain is on to something, both in what she says specifically and what I think she hints at. Even if we can’t neatly divide the world into introverts and extroverts (and even ambiverts, which I get the impression she doesn’t think is as useful as the the other two categories), we can look at how different personality traits can offer something of value to the individual as well as to the rest of us. Categorizing personality traits can simply be a useful way of exploring how we can integrate seemingly disparate ways of being ourselves in the interests of personal growth, in becoming the people we want to be, even if the categories seem clunky or artificial.

Cain suggests we look a little closer and see what introversion has to offer both for the individual and to society. She offers, among many, many others, the famous example of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, super-duo of the tech world. Jobs, with his outgoing and outsized personality, made Apple become one of the most successfully marketed products ever made. Wozniak, with his intense powers of concentration and habit of undistracted bouts of problem-solving, came up with the basic concept and design to begin with in the countless hours he spent alone in his personal space. And it’s not just amazing new gadgets that can be the products of introversion; they can be as grand as new discoveries in science and physics or as humble yet delightful and enriching to the mind as any lovely, clever, and insightful little poem by the ultra-introvert Emily Dickinson.

Cain’s insights can help us stop taking it for granted that having a quiet and reserved personality means a person is antisocial, or is ‘no fun’, or doesn’t care about others or can’t work with them, or any other negative stereotype often assigned to the non-extrovert. That’s because exploring the differences between personality traits can reveal how interconnected they are even as we recognize and explain how they fulfill different needs and perform different roles in our psyches.
Yet, I find there’s even more to be gleaned from what she has to say. She hints that even if introversion has no instrumental value, valuable only insofar as it facilitates or creates something else, it’s just as valid a way of being as is any other way of being. The marvelously rich variety of human nature, from introversion to extroversion and what’s in between, can all be reveled in and enjoyed for its own sake. There’s no need for the introvert to feel left out, to feel excluded, to feel ‘lacking’ in an extroverted world: there are great riches to be discovered and explored within ourselves too, which we all would do much better not to forget and neglect.


Sources and inspiration:

Cain, Susan. ‘Extrovert Bias- It’s All Around Us’, RSA discussion on Big Ideas podcast, Radio National Australia

‘Extraversion or Introversion’, Myers and Briggs Foundation website, 1997.

‘Study Sheds Light on What Makes People Shy’, Live Science Staff, April 06, 2010

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