The misunderstood introvert

Imagine it’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a demanding week. What are you looking forward to doing:

(a) meeting several friends at a trendy pub?; or
(b) retreating to a corner of the house for a quiet read?

According to Carl Jung, there are two kinds of people in the world: introverts and extroverts (alternative spelling, extraverts). Sometimes I think the divide between these two groups is as great as the divide between men and women. We understand each other’s perspectives only dimly and with much effort.

Back on August 22, I published the post, Most overrated virtue. I wrote,

Western society rewards extroverts over introverts virtually every time. People respond to it as a great virtue even if they haven’t explicitly thought of it in those terms.

I think introverts have a great deal to contribute to society, though I am not saying that introverts are better than extroverts. As in most areas, I think balance is a healthy ideal … and I think our society is unbalanced in favour of extroverts.

The post didn’t provoke much of a reaction until Bill returned from vacation some days later. He responded:

I disagree on extroversion being overrated.

Extroversion allows the extrovert to connect with society as a whole in a much more concrete way. The extrovert might have 100 personal interactions a day and if only 10 percent are quality connections then he/she has connected in a very concrete way to 10 people per day, 3500 people per year, and millions in a life time.

The introvert is lucky if he/she makes 5 special friends in a life time. I have rarely met a lonely extrovert but I know many lonely introverts.

It is my impression that some bad blood is rising to the surface here. Introverts and extroverts simply don’t understand one another. As usual, where misunderstanding abounds, each side is guilty of offending the other.

I would like to promote greater harmony between these two alien beings. I can’t speak for the extroverts of the world; perhaps one of my readers can take up the challenge and post on The misunderstood extrovert. But I can speak on behalf of introverts and attempt to clear away some misperceptions.

1. Introverted ≠ socially incompetent:

Admittedly, introverts may be clumsy in social situations. An introvert may have trouble initiating a conversation or maintaining it. She may seize up with anxiety or embarrassment and come across as dull or disinterested.

But introverts are not all socially incompetent. Some introverts have learned that you can initiate a conversation with something as simple as a warm smile coupled with direct eye contact. They’ve learned to stay abreast of current issues, so they’ll have something of interest to say at a party. They’ve learned not to panic when there’s a lull in the conversation (because conversations have a natural ebb and flow to them). And they’ve learned to ask the other person a question about themselves if the lull continues too long and they can’t think of anything interesting to say.

In other words, they’ve developed some adaptive behaviours to compensate for their native uneasiness in a crowd.

Similarly, introverted is not the same thing as shy. I am an introvert, but I am also a reasonably good public speaker. I’m not very good at extemporizing, but if I have adequate time to prepare I am quite capable of engaging people’s attention and getting a message across.

My ex-wife is a raging extrovert. But, to my surprise, I discovered there was one social situation where I was more comfortable than she was.

I was the pastor of a church for about four years. It was a small church, and I did my best to turn that into a virtue by emphasizing personal contact with folks. Each Sunday, before the worship service started, I would walk around and greet people where they sat in the pews.

I was perfectly comfortable in that role, but for some reason my ex-wife wasn’t. She could have just stayed at my elbow and let me lead, but she found the whole exercise awkward and uncomfortable.

I never did figure out why it was an issue for her, but it was good for my ego. Despite my introversion (and her extroversion), I was more at ease and adept in that social situation than she was.

2. Introverted ≠ distant or aloof:

Here I want to call your attention to the intimacy paradox. (As far as I know, I have just coined the expression.)

Even Mary P. finds this subject confusing. I tell her that I have a deep need for human contact, and she just shoots me that look. You know the look I mean; the same look an entomologist might use to study an unfamiliar insect. Behind the clinical expression, she’s calculating how to respond:  It can be dangerous to contradict delusional people. Perhaps it would be safer to play along with Q and pretend that he’s making sense.

It surprises me that the intimacy paradox surprises Mary P. It is, in fact, the foundation of our relationship. Mary P. and I both have an extraordinary need for intimacy. We spend many hours deep in conversation. And I do not exaggerate when I say that those conversations are life to me.

This is not typical of all introverts, I admit. Some people are completely self-contained; they have no need of human companionship. (I’ll return to this observation and offer another comment on it below.)

But I think it is more typical for introverts to have an inner drive toward intimacy. Introverts are not distant or aloof. They need fewer relationships than extroverts, but they desire a profound degree of intimacy in the relationships they do form.

Bill estimates that he has 100 personal interactions per day, and 10 of those are quality interactions. Mary P. responded:

Introverts and extroverts define “quality” quite differently. Something you, as an extrovert would define as a quality interaction, I would see as just beginning to show the potential for quality.

As an introvert, I’d say that if you were having as many as 100 interactions in a day, there would simply not be the time for any of them to be “quality”. You would see it otherwise, because your definition of the word differs from mine.

And this is the critical point. Who defines the quality of a friendship? Obviously, the parties to that friendship.

Intimacy is not a prerequisite of a “quality” friendship; not the way that Bill defines “quality”. And he should define his friendships in the way that best suits him.

The intimacy paradox is, introverts require more intimacy than extroverts. If I had ten “quality” friendships at the same time, I’d see it as an embarrassment of riches. And I probably couldn’t maintain them all. I’d find it too demanding; it would be more than I could give of myself.

3. The defining characteristic of an introvert:

According to Myers-Briggs, introverts direct their energy to the inner world of thoughts and emotions and derive energy back from that inner world of thoughts and emotions. Extroverts, on the other hand, direct their energy to the outer world of people and things and receive energy back from that source.

I would emphasize the second half of the definition and ask, Where do you get your energy from? In my view, this is the best way to distinguish an introvert from an extrovert.

This, too, was a lesson I learned in my first marriage. My ex-wife gained energy in proportion to the social demands we were facing. At Christmas time, when we faced multiple demands from church, family, and friends, she was in her glory. But I found it exhausting. I just wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere til Christmas was over.

Not an ideal quality in a pastor, by the way.

I get energy from turning inward. Long before I encountered Myers-Briggs, I said that I needed to be “alone in my own head”.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy socializing. We live on a very social street, and I love it. I think it’s great that people sit on their front porches and holler to one another across the street, or invite each other over for a drink. I gain a certain amount of energy from that dynamic … but mostly vicariously. I only participate to a limited extent.

I like to think that I am friendly, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I am not unfriendly. I socialize in short bursts; then I feel a need to retreat.

Regrettably, even though I enjoy socializing, I don’t find it reenergizing:  I find it taxing. I sincerely wish it wasn’t so, but it’s just the way I’m “wired”. If I don’t spend a certain amount of time alone in my own head I begin to get depressed.

There is one exception to the general rule:  my relationship with Mary P. I find it reenergizing to spend time with her, exploring “the inner world of thoughts and emotions” jointly.

And this brings me back to the observation I made earlier, that some people are completely self-contained. I think there are two kinds of introvert:  those who are content to explore the inner world of thoughts and emotions solo, and those who want to share that voyage of discovery with someone else.

I’m in the latter camp. A quality friendship, for me, is a relationship where we can explore the inner world of thoughts and emotions jointly.

Conclusion:

Let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this post. Imagine it’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a demanding week. What are you looking forward to doing:

(a) meeting several friends at a trendy pub?; or
(b) retreating to a corner of the house for a quiet read?

If you answered (a), you’re an extrovert. When you’re exhausted, you want to socialize in order to reenergize.

If you answered (b), you’re an introvert. When you’re exhausted, you want to turn inward to your thoughts and emotions.

But introverted is not equivalent to socially incompetent or shy; nor is it equivalent to distant or aloof. On the contrary, introverts can be socially adept, good public speakers, and highly interested in intimacy.

The key distinction is the one I’ve emphasized:  when you’re exhausted, how do you reenergize?

I’ll be watching for someone to respond with a corresponding post, The misunderstood extrovert.

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Misanthrope
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 11:51:00

    I would say that most writers are introverts because so much thought is going on related to what you might write.

    I actually know the time that I went from extravert to introvert; it was the transition from the 7th grade to the 8th grade. I became more of a listener than someone always vying for attention. Maybe, too I started to realize my shortcomings. In any case, I my more introverted than many, but an extrovert compared to On The Mark or even my wife.

    I would socialize just about how you do it and would enjoy the comfort of having others out front when I felt like going out there.

    Reply

  2. kris
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 13:38:00

    You are spot on. It has nothing to do with whether or not you are the life or the wallflower of the party, but at the end of the day, how do you get your oomph back?

    These are most likely some of the most unhelpful (because they are misused) labels in our society.

    I’m more extroverted on paper – and definitely in my blog! but am an introvert at heart.

    Great post.

    Reply

  3. Q
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 14:03:00

    Misanthrope:
    I consider myself strongly introverted. If you socialize like I do, but you’re an extrovert compared to On The Mark and your wife, wow!

    But it’s certainly true that we’re talking about a continuum here. Mary P. is very close to the mid-point: either a little extroverted or a little introverted, take your pick.

    I notice it most in conversations. Most of the time I am the listener in any diad. But there are certain people who probably think I’m a real chatterbox, because I always carry the conversation when we’re together. That dynamic has always fascinated me: Why do I have so much to say to this person, when I can’t think of anything to say to that person?

    If On The Mark and your wife were alone together, which one of them would keep the conversation moving?

    Kris:
    Thanks for the kind words.

    I think being extroverted on paper relates to the introvert’s drive for intimacy. We like to delve into people’s thoughts and emotions, and a blog is a great place to do it. It looks like extroverted behaviour because we’re exposing so much of ourselves … but it’s just part of the paradoxical package that is introversion.
    Q

    Reply

  4. Mary P.
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 15:06:00

    I once spoke to the parents of a child in my care, telling them that as their son was an introvert, there were aspects of group care that he found difficult. I was in fact suggesting that for another few months to a year the child would be better off at home with a nanny (which they could easily afford), and try group care later.

    Dad was most insulted. Blustered on, essentially in the vein that “no son of mine…”.

    He’s not that unusual, though he expressed himself more obnoxiously than most. Introversion is frequently seen as a disability, a problem to be overcome, a weakness; totally unfair, of course, as each type has its particular strengths and weaknesses.

    To equate introversion with social ineptness and extroversion with social skill is foolish. Introverts can be socially skilled, and who hasn’t met a few socially unskilled extroverts in their time? You remember him/her: the noisy bore that everyone tries to avoid at the party, who loves nothing better than the sound of their own voice, and doesn’t listen at all.

    Each has strengths and weaknesses; each different, both equally important to society.

    Reply

  5. 49erDweet
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 15:28:00

    Good insights. Mary P. and Q hit the mark in pointing out the unfair societal bias against introverts. Pondering that problem.

    That brings up a question. Some of what I do requires recruiting volunteers to hop on a public conveyance, greet all the fare-paying passengers in the same manner as a host, and explain “what’s happening” at prestigious events – said comments including how the passengers will be able, at the end of the day, to return to their original point of embarkment. (too much detail, sorry). The question. Do I want to recruit introverts or extroverts for this task, or does it make any difference?

    Reply

  6. Q
    Sep 09, 2005 @ 15:40:00

    Mary P.
    I agree that extroverts can be socially incompetent. Just because you’re out there interacting with people doesn’t mean you’re doing it skillfully.

    As I acknowledged in the post, introverts have certain innate social weaknesses which can be a handicap, and they need to learn adaptive behaviours to succeed socially. The same is true with respect to extroverts, even if the challenges they face are different.

    49er:
    Another one of those provocative questions for which you’re renowned. You’re trying to get me into difficulty here, aren’t you?
    😉

    The answer, of course, is to hire the candidates who seem to be up to the job.

    I wouldn’t test them to see who’s an introvert and who’s an extrovert and discriminate one way or the other. You would want to make sure they could interact competently with the public … but introverts are capable of that, as I’ve explained in my post.

    Employers make a mistake by unconsciously favouring one type over the other, to the detriment of the organization.

    The job you describe would be more taxing for an introvert, no doubt. For six years I worked with developmentally challenged people. Some of them talked too loud, non-stop, and they stood too close. Very tiring for an introvert like me to be in that environment 40 hours per week.

    Still, I managed just fine for those six years.
    Q

    Reply

  7. snaars
    Sep 10, 2005 @ 10:45:00

    … it’s a Friday afternoon at the end of a demanding week. What are you looking forward to doing:
    (a) meeting several friends at a trendy pub?; or
    (b) retreating to a corner of the house for a quiet read?

    Definitely B for me. That is, unless I happen to be in the mood for A. When I am in the mood for A, I can tell you I’m automatically frustrated because no-one I am friends with goes in for A.

    99% of the time I’ll be in situation C:

    (c) Get home from work just in time to help with dinner, eat dinner, go for a short walk if I’m lucky, get the kids bathed and settled, tuck the kids in bed, converse with Michelle for a bit, and watch a late-night video.

    Reply

  8. Q
    Sep 11, 2005 @ 08:50:00

    Snaars:
    I have the impression you’re gently poking fun at me. It’s true, there are more than two ways to spend your time on a Friday evening.

    Extroverts may want to spend time at a church function instead of a pub. Introverts may want to watch TV instead of reading.

    And parenting? Our options tend to be constrained when we have young children. I think it’s great that you derive so much satisfaction from being in that role.

    Is parenting another social demand like any other, which introverts may find taxing? Or is it in a category unto itself, and introverts may find it reenergizing despite the obviously social nature of the task?

    I suspect one introvert would answer that question differently than another.
    Q

    Reply

  9. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 13, 2005 @ 16:03:00

    I am that overlooked minority, a forced extrovert.

    there’s no doubt that I am naturally an introvert – decidedly so, curling up on my own with a book sounds like heaven to me – although I can’t actually remmeber having time to do it.

    However, as I reached my mid-teens I worked out that only extroverts get what they want out of life – and knowing what I wanted (to get out of East London asap), I set about “becomming” an extrovert.

    it’s all a show, but has become second nature in many ways now. It means I think I can understand both types, although I never quite get what I want out of social situations, as I need an introverts friendship to come out of an extroverts meeting!

    Reply

  10. Q
    Sep 13, 2005 @ 16:51:00

    Mrs. Aginoth:
    Welcome back from your travels.

    An overlooked minority indeed, like a left-handed individual being forced to function right-handed.

    Good for you, making the changes you needed to achieve the goals you set for yourself. I don’t know that I could force myself to act like an extrovert, but maybe I’ve just left it too late.
    Q

    Reply

  11. Nicole
    Nov 28, 2005 @ 23:52:00

    Okay, seeing how I’m in grad school learning about all this stuff, I can’t help but chime in.

    One important thing to note is that Jung’s theory proposes that being well-rounded means going toward the center on all four continuums on the Meyers Briggs scale, therefore, being in the middle between extrovert and introvert is viewed as being preferred.

    I’m an extrovert married to an introvert. I love us both for the balance that we provide to one another.

    Actually, there is a theory that introversion/extroversion can be detected even before birth. Introverts tend to have a higher baseline state of arousal, therefore, it takes less to stimulate them.

    Extroverts, conversely, have a lower baseline rate of arousal. Therefore, it takes more interaction to receive the same chemical/emotional feedback.

    So, babies that are more active in the womb are correlated to extroversion.

    Can’t we all just get along? 😉

    (Oh, and very few people are singularly extroverted or introverted, rather it’s on a continuum, meaning most of us a at least some ratio of each quality).

    Reply

  12. Nicole
    Nov 29, 2005 @ 08:45:00

    Ohh, look at this…

    http://tinyurl.com/e3uvn

    A yahoo news article on this topic that was on the front page today. We all control the news, evidently.

    Reply

  13. km
    Aug 01, 2008 @ 08:02:42

    I agree 100%. Mrs.Aginoth’s statements could have been my own. I have learned to socialize to get ahead, but by nature, I am clearly an introvert. I find the need for intimacy to be the biggest difference between extroverts and introverts. I just don’t understand how extroverts can be satisfied with their quality of friendships. Unless there are hours of deep conversation, I am left unfulfilled. Yet, I enjoy the extrovert because their energy level always seems so much higher than mine. Both types definitely have their positives and negatives.

    Reply

  14. Stephen
    Aug 03, 2008 @ 13:16:19

    (Stephen = Q — I have started blogging under my real name since I wrote this post.)

    I think it’s natural for introverts to find extroverts attractive for their energy levels and their ability to leap into any social situation. Perhaps extroverts are likewise attracted to introverts on the “opposites attract” principle.

    But I would caution people not to make the mistake of marrying someone who is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Inevitably, I think the introvert is going to feel exhausted by the extrovert’s social drive, while the extrovert is going to experience the introvert as an anchor they are dragging around behind them.

    Reply

  15. woc
    May 31, 2010 @ 14:46:17

    Thanks for a well written post. I found it while trying to explain the paradox to my extroverted friend. Like you I need to connect with people on my introspective journeys. These people have been difficult to find. Even with the two people I have been able to have the sort of deep conversations with, it happens rarely and I feel selfish for talking about myself. How did you find your friends and support network?

    Reply

  16. Barbara Saunders
    Feb 17, 2011 @ 22:56:23

    Lonely introverts? Extroverts get lonely; introverts are more likely to be alienated than lonely!

    I can be happy alone, happy with one of those “few” friends, and alienated/bored/irritated in an extrovert-style crowd of “friends” who have little intimacy between them.

    Reply

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