Introvert to Extrovert, The Great Divide

Dear extroverts, I do love you, let’s get that straight at the top. (That means you, Judy Weaver.) I’ve always assumed there was a 50-50 divide between us and have just learned there are more of you than there are of us. More accurately, on the sliding scale from pure introvert to pure extrovert, the balance tips slightly (or more than slightly, depending on what you read) toward the extrovert end. I need not speak of ambiverts—those balanced creatures are poised to take care of themselves.

Our lesser share of the divide explains a lot, but is not the problem. The problem is what we value in today’s world. There might as well be signs on classroom and office doors: extroversion preferred. Gregarious and out-going equals success. Those TV ads meant to make you drink show handsome young people laughing, surrounded by crowds and loud music. Loud music makes me wince. Crowds make me shudder. I don’t do parties.

Everywhere I’ve worked, co-workers went for drinks on Friday. After dealing with people all day, all I wanted was quiet. I made lame excuses like, “I already have plans.” You knew I was lying, suspected me of not liking you and got your feelings hurt. To avoid that—because I do like you—I’d go anyway and come home exhausted with a headache. Telling the truth was never an option. How to explain that not wanting to be with you doesn’t mean I don’t like you? It’s a conundrum extroverts cannot comprehend.

The division has to do with where you get your energy. Are you stimulated and recharged by being social? Extrovert. Do you need to be alone and quiet to recharge? Introvert. No one is completely one or the other. There were times in my salad days when I threw my own parties. As a teacher, I liked being in front the class. Introverts can and do enjoy gregarious activities. Conversely, even the most extroverted extroverts like a little quiet once in a while.

It seems you must have some silence, if you’re going to learn anything. Loren Frank, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, explained conclusions of research conducted there: “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories.” Loren said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

This research reminded me of the poetic platform advanced by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the famous preface to their “Lyrical Ballads,” 1798. (Well, famous among English majors and poets, at least.) Therein, Wordsworth said poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” That poetry should be devoted to feeling, to exploration of the inner self, was a radical idea at the time. But when I discovered it, the concept that tranquility was necessary to process experience was the crucial information. It explained me to myself.

We did the Myers-Briggs—big on extrovert/introvert assessment—at my arts school years ago. Writing and visual arts people tended to be introverts. Performance arts people tended to be extroverts. Makes sense. Writers and painters by and large work alone. Performance requires teamwork. Results weren’t black and white, of course. Human nature constitutes a complicated spectrum. Actors, for example, may be introverts in life, extroverts only on stage.

Carl Jung popularized these terms, so they’ve been with us since the 1920s. Myers-Briggs put them in the workplace. A recent book by Susan Cain, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, raises relatively new issues. You can get a nutshell of her ideas from her 2014 TED talk, available online. (Go figure: an introvert doing TED talks.)

Cain says open office floor plans don’t work for introverts. We’re distracted by ambient noise. That explains why I find few restaurants I enjoy these days. Maintaining a conversation is impossible for me in the midst of loud voices or music. When I taught, I used those educational favorites, class participation and group projects. Everyone did. I never thought to question it, but they can be painful for introverts. Our tendency to go with the flow is strong, and this extrovert current’s been running the river for years. In her TED talk, Susan Cain exclaims, “stop the madness for constant group work.”

The “madness” exists because of our unexamined bias that “plays well with others” is superior to figuring out solutions independently, that action is better than stillness. We’ve forgotten how transformative silence can be, routinely force people into extroverted behavior without really thinking about it. Given a bit of tranquility, really thinking about it is something a good introvert can easily do.


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10 Responses to Introvert to Extrovert, The Great Divide

  1. Pat Dubrava says:

    Posting for Denise Gibson:
    Introvert. Extrovert. As I read this beautiful blog post I find myself balancing on the brink, if I choose to define myself this way, starting to topple one way, then the other. Yet these seem like labels, and I, desiring more freedom, choose to unburden from them. My love is when I can give my full attention to the item at hand in the midst of chaos. I actually had a creative writing instructor who would ask us to write on a topic and then go about the class clapping, yelling, and attempting to distract us! Buddhists have given us the more gentle teaching of meditation to calm the mind and body so that we can better move through the distractions of life. And it strikes me that if we can be willing to share our passion for life and learning, that is the purest form of “extrovert.” And perhaps understanding this passion is the purest form of “introvert”.
    Thanks, Denise!

  2. Gregg Painter says:

    I am an introvert. I think I may have scored slightly above the line on the Meyers/Briggs test once or twice in the half-dozen times I took the test, but that’s probably because I was in school, and in school I pretend to be an extrovert. I have to entertain several small crowds a day in this line of work (although now my kids are taking a standardized test).
    I am on stage tonight (well, crouching behind a piano), but have also been on stage as an actor. I think I chose my professions as self-therapy, to balance my pretty extreme natural state of introversion. And Pat is right: how you feel after a party is a good index of who you are on this scale. After a night of jazz, I can’t get to sleep for a couple of hours. This is not because I’ve been “performing,” though, it’s because I’ve been lost in an inner world of abstraction and emotion, and it is elating.

    So why is our daughter Quinn such an extrovert, being raised by two introverts? (And she is. Out every night with friends, while at home – a place she is leaving.) Well, I think that she is one argument for the nature part of the nature/nurture argument. But that’s for a column Pat is going to write the year after next.

  3. Maria says:

    Other than having a strong new $100,000 knee, the best thing about my recent TKR is that I had a chance to be alone while rehabilitating. For four weeks, I had no contact with the world outside my home. I went to surgery quietly, so my family and friends were unaware (done like a true introvert). My PT, a quiet woman, came to our home. No fanfare there. Perfect match.

    Coincidentally, I read Susan Cain’s book while waiting for ice to reduce swelling. No pressure (often self-imposed in my case) to interact… My husband could not converse much as his energy was depleted from grocery shopping, cleaning and creating fresh veggie meals as well as cranking my knee into a bend a few painful times a day.

    So, Pat, you see how timely your writing is for me. I enjoyed every quiet word. Thank you!

  4. patti bippus says:

    Great personal insight, Pat Dubrava. I, too, am an introvert who’s had to “act like” an extrovert most of my professional life. However, I did find that I did my best studying in the busiest corner cafe/bookshop near campus where I sat alone in a booth and “tuned out” all the hubbub around me. Couldn’t study with just music (I’d get too lost in the melodies); couldn’t abide the total quiet of the library (I heard every page turned); never tried a bar (hmmmm ?)

  5. Kathleen Cain says:

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ~ had to share the big contented sigh of relief I breathed as I read this article. Yes! to everything you’ve said about us introverts. As one who learned to be an extrovert to do the job I did, working with a student-factulty-staff-community public for 30 years – but who is/was truly an introvert, I am going to go into my quiet garden and contemplate the pleasure with which I salute you & this article! From your favorite INFJ on the west side,
    Kathleen 😉

  6. Bob Jaeger says:

    Thanks, Pat. What a beautiful, thoughtful piece. It’s good to be reminded that we introverts also have a place. Having just had house guests for 5 days, I’m reminded how much of an introvert I have always been. Even in retirement, it’s hard in a world that seems to grow noisier by the day. When, years ago, companies started hiring folks to live in Antarctica for research, they at first hired introverts (seemed to make sense). It was a disaster, because they couldn’t get away from each other.

  7. Andy says:

    This is a lovely reflection on introversion and Susan Cain’s book. I love your point about how the world is often extrovert-centric. It’s interesting to think of how different aspects of the world we have created makes you ‘feel’ as an introvert. The classroom, work environments, crowds etc. Not only does the introverted temperament require downtime away from people to re-energise, but the world is often so geared towards catering to the extrovert-temperament that the introvert burns out quicker, or feels compelled to withdraw slightly and create their own little world. This has given me very interesting food for thought, so thank you, Pat. I’m very glad I came across your post!

  8. Beth McKee says:

    I remember how shocked I was by the results of the Myers-Briggs test. Something had gone terribly awry in the scoring, I thought, or perhaps I had daydreamed my way through the questions, bored as bored. There was no way I was an introvert. An intuitive, sure, and intuitive enough to divine that I was no introvert.

    The term ‘introvert’ had been used by my mother’s family to whip a child out of the doldrums. Sitting around, doing nothing, or worse, eyeing the insides of a book while the sun was up and shining outside, meant that the basic enthusiasm for life had to be drummed into the skull anew. “Look at Mark Hiskey,” my grandmother would point out, and I’d watch the single, middle-aged man across the road as he hummed around his hedges of perennials. “Nice-looking boy, too,” she’d add. “Could have had his choice of the girls if he hadn’t been an introvert.”

    Currently I have a houseful of people staying with me. Three young garden helpers are here, thanks to the online wwoofer site which pairs kids who want to learn about sustainable farming and gardening practices with farmers and gardeners who are willing to host them. To offset the cost of feeding near-teenagers, I rented out the guest rooms of the house a few months ago. Somehow, in imagining how much work I could get done this summer, I forgot the silence and seclusion which are as necessary to me as air and water. After the last supper dishes are done, and everyone has settled in their rooms or tents, I settle here in my room and begin my authentic day. For weeks now, I’ve fallen asleep at three or so, after inhaling the primacy of long silence, the very energy of my seclusion, albeit all too brief. I do have to be up by seven. The kids are hungry. Because I live in an adobe house, I’ve been allowing myself a siesta most afternoons.

  9. Jana says:

    I think astrology may have more truth in it than any of us want to admit. It teaches that about every 24 years we go through a different phase (our sun, our moon, our rising etc). Many of us live one phase as a “shy” kid and then a “shy” senior, but the middle stages as outgoing, go-getters. People who knew us at one stage of our lives, might barely recognize the person we became in the next. Perhaps that old idea that older people revert to their childhoods is about more than we used to think.

  10. Jean Queneau says:

    I guess I am an introvert, because I need time alone to recharge,
    especially after lots of companionship – like after a family reunion.

    Once in a while I enjoy a group that dances up a storm. My husband and I always
    leave earlier than the hardier partiers, but I enjoy it thoroughly – just not every weekend.

    I find I often have to talk myself into doing something when I am not
    sure quite what it will entail – and risk looking silly meanwhile. A
    good example was the recent meeting of the Here and Now group, led by
    Kathleen Cain and Steve Kennedy, where I knew K would be talking about

    It was terrific: a chance to learn, stretch wings a bit, and best of
    all meet a very interesting bunch.

    Thanks for the blog! I am printing and re-reading pieces, laughing
    again at some of Pat’s descriptions and insights.

    Jean Q

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