Thursday, September 08, 2005

The misunderstood introvert

Time for a change of pace. I have one more subject I'd like to address with respect to Hurricane Katrina, but people may want to take a break and think about something else.

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.


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.


At 11:51 AM, September 09, 2005, Blogger The Misanthrope said...

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.

At 1:38 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Kris said...

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.

At 2:03 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

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?

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.

At 3:06 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

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.

At 3:28 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger 49erDweet said...

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?

At 3:40 PM, September 09, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

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.

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.

At 10:45 AM, September 10, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

... 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.

At 8:50 AM, September 11, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

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.

At 4:03 PM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

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!

At 4:51 PM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

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.

At 11:52 PM, November 28, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

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).

At 8:45 AM, November 29, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Ohh, look at this...

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

At 12:01 AM, January 16, 2008, Anonymous MsTea1 said...

This is obviously an older blog,and I dont know if you still blog, but Im praying you do. I have recently reached a point in my relationship where I realize the man I've been seeing is not ignoring me, but rather he is a "self contained" introvert as you put it. I too am an introvert but I really enjoy sharing my voyage with him. He seems to be dueling with the intimacy paradox, even as a self contained introvert. How do I offer him support and how can I stop looking at him the way Mary P looked at you and respond in a more productive way?

At 4:58 AM, April 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Introverts look inwards and find emptiness.

Extroverts look outwards and find fulfillment.

More's the pity for introverts!

At 3:12 PM, August 05, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well please give me your thoughts on this: When I am out and about at social gatherings, I would appear to be an extrovert. I dance, I sing, I socialize, but when people try to connect with me on a personal level, let's say, a one on one, I am scared to death. I can't make eye contact. I say the wrong things. People seem almost turned off or repulsed by me. It brings a feeling of shame. I have been called shy, soft-spoken and anti-social, but people who are close to me can't understand the statements. I have always felt like an introvert when it comes to connecting with people I don't already know, but with people I already know, I am most certainly an extrovert.....or maybe I'm just bipolar. What do you think?

At 10:04 AM, March 30, 2011, Blogger jen said...

I hope, one day, that introvert/extrovert will be recognized as a separate and third choice. The question you pose regarding "What would you choose to do at the end of the week..." (a) go out and socialize or (b) retreat to a quiet corner and read a book has a dependent variable for me. I am an intor/extro, if I have had a social week then I would choose (b); however, if I have had a quiet week with little social interaction, I would choose (a).

Your article was very insightful.

At 11:04 PM, August 25, 2011, Anonymous another introvert said...

@the Anonymous who posted on April 29, 2009:

"How dare you type prejudice against introverts. Didn't you read the article that not all introverts are the same?

It seems to me that you think that all extroverts are good people and that all introverts people. Newsflash: There are bad extroverts, good extroverts, bad introverts, and good introverts.

Why can't you respect introverts for who they are. In case you haven't, they're deep thinkers whereas extroverts don't think very deeply.

Also, there are extroverts who think that everyone should be like them or else. That's not right because the status quo has to be challenged sometimes and because we're all individuals.

If you think about, it's not all right for everyone to be like everybody because that would total discomfort. I mean, would you like it everyone is just like you?

Another thing is that you perspective on introverts and extroverts is superficial. In case you didn't notice, there are extroverts who superficial and introverts who aren't. And here's an example:

'In schools like high school, there are jocks and cheerleaders who are extroverted but care too much about appearances and not about intelligence in that they bully those who are different from them because they think that's cool and because they think it raises their statuses.

The introverts in school are the polite and friendly nerds who don't care about appearances and materialistic possessions because they know better than to do that. Plus, they prefer others for who they and not what they want them to be.'

What I'm trying to get at is that those school extroverts believe everyone should either be liked them or get clobbered while the school introverts give other people their space and try to accept them for who they are or avoid them."

@The Misanthrope:

"I agree with the first paragraph that you typed. Plus, you remind me of myself due to your username. Like you, I'm a misanthrope but not a total misanthrope because there are people who I like and spend time with like my family and relatives.

Another way that I'm like you and the author of this blog is that introvert and proud of it."

At 11:20 AM, March 25, 2012, Blogger kormathaw said...

I despise that I am an introvert. There are tons of things I love about being introspective, but there is nothing more torturous in my life than loving having close intimate relationships with people, but being socially inept in a group of strangers and being unable to connect with anyone, but knowing it is the only way to develop those relationships. And then having people tell you you come off as being anti-social due to the social ineptness.
But of course, you still put yourself out there, put yourself through the torture to try and have those relationships you crave.
I would rather have hot needles put under my fingers than be in those social situations. But I would rather go through that torture than be alone.
Welcome to the life of a socially inept introvert. Give them a hug if you know one in your life. If they are your kid, teach them socially tools, because the only thing worse than being an introvert in a crowd is being a socially inept introvert in a crowd, but don't forget the learning process is painful.

At 3:22 AM, March 29, 2012, Blogger ntWrong said...

Hi, Kormathaw. I'm fortunate in that I have good social skills -- I've been a negotiator for the past five years, and I couldn't do it if I weren't adept socially. That's part of my point, of course: one can be an introvert and have good social skills, just as one can be an extravert but go around offending people left and right.

You don't mention your age. Here's hoping you're still young (I'm 50) and you might develop increased comfort in social situations. Life is not always gentle with us; sometimes we develop important skills through painful experience. Perhaps one day you'll look back on this stage of your life and realize how far you've come in terms of social skills.

I couldn't have succeeded as a negotiator at the age of 30, for example. Nor could I have imagined myself married to such a wonderful woman as my wife. I was often down on myself, and pessimistic about my prospects in life. But being an introvert doesn't doom one to isolation and misery. Be patient with yourself, and don't despair.

At 2:42 PM, May 03, 2012, Blogger Yash said...

Is it possible that an introvert likes his/her partner to be an extrovert? If that's the case, finding the right partner might be a bit tricky and may take ages sometimes. Extroverts would be generally attracted to people like them - i.e. extroverts. They might feel bored in the company of introverts, who seldom make jokes, or are funny or social or outgoing. The conversations might also feel like arguments and become irritating.

Are introverts only made for introverts? If one wants a life without compromises, should one go for like-people instead of different?


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