Not all that long ago a fellow Fordham student (and loyal TJP reader) posted an interesting video about introverts on Facebook.1 As a raging, falling-off-the-boat, say-everything-that-comes-to-my-head extrovert, I found the video informative – and kind of surprising. What was most interesting was not the video’s argument that the majority of American society is geared at rewarding extroverts for their outgoing behavior. No, what was most interesting to me was a corollary to that argument: that American society forces introverts to become functional extroverts in order to succeed. If you have a few quiet minutes, take a look:
As the video makes clear, its insights come directly from Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In it, Cain argues that, in our overly extroverted world, it’s introverts who are devalued. She notes that introverts often have to pretend to be extroverted in order to succeed simply because so much of our society expects success to look like extroversion. And I think she’s right. After all, our society places charismatic leadership at a premium2 and regularly encourages people to “come out of their shells” and engage the world around them. You can hear her tell you as much herself by listening to her TED talk.
“Introversion” and “extroversion” were both words I’d heard and used (and even vaguely understood) before I listened to Cain and read her book. It took listening and reading to show me how much more there was to discover. In case you find yourself in a similar place, here’s a quick primer. (Disclaimer: I am neither a psychologist nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, so while these will be more than simply pop-definitions, they’ll be far from exhaustive or scientific.)
Both “introvert” and “extrovert” are perhaps most famous these days for being employed by the Myers-Briggs personality test, though they originally come from the famous psychologist Carl Jung. Jung’s original, more technical, definitions held that an extrovert is someone who has an attitude that concentrates on external objects, while introverts have attitudes concentrating on internal ones.
Another way to distinguish these types is based on how a person expends and recharges energy. Extroverts tend to find social situations with lots of interaction energizing, while long periods of solitude are draining. An introvert, however, would tend to find the same social situation depleting, and would need periods of quiet and silence in order to recharge. For me, I need to get the five other guys at the lunch table talking in order to recharge my batteries for those long periods of solitude that reading philosophy books requires.
Introverts and extroverts also differ in how they process data. Extroverts, no surprise, tend toward external processing, while introverts tend toward internal processing. Extroverts need to write out lists, talk with a friend – even talk to themselves (guilty!) – to sort through the data of their lives. An introvert, on the other hand, is more likely to process that data internally, without needing to discuss, sort through, or “try on” an idea outside of their own heads.
Statistics on the number of people who identify as introverts seem to vary. Some say as little as 25%, Cain herself thinks the number is somewhere between one-third and one-half. If even the lowest estimates are correct, it should come as no surprise that there are some corners of society where introverts are more highly prized, affirmed and even rewarded. For example, when I was teaching high school, the faculty at the school where I taught was loaded with introverts. Aside from myself and one other teacher (who were told we talked too much … which we probably did) everyone else quietly and diligently attended to their work.
Another, perhaps surprising, place to find lots of introverts is in religious life. I guess it shouldn’t be that shocking (what? A lot of people dedicated to prayer like to be quiet? Weird) – but it was sure a shock for me.
So while many people are introverts living in an extrovert’s world, I happen to be an extrovert living in an introvert’s world. Which gives me a unique position – part of the minority in some ways and of the majority in others. It also gives me the feeling that I can help bridge the gap, be a sort of emissary of peace between these two types of people. And what better way is there to be an emissary of peace than to come up with a list.3 So I did. What follows are 10 thoughts, 10 rambling, emissary-of-peace-creating, observations that I have come to realize in my years living as an exiled extrovert. Last thing, to give my extroverted self someone to process all this with, I created an introvert in my imagination, somebody who is a combination of many of my introverted friends. We’ll call him Steve. On to the list.
1. Introvert knowledge: just because he’s not talking doesn’t mean Steve is mad at me.
Sometimes introverts are just silent. Not because they are punishing someone, not because they are angry, just because. It took me a few years in Jesuit life before I stopped wondering whether Steve was mad at me because he had gone to his room to be by himself at the end of the day. “What it something I said?” No. “Why is Steve mad at me?” He’s not, he just needs some time alone.
2. Introvert knowledge: Steve can be the life of the party and still be an introvert.
The contrary of this is one of those pop-definitions of introversion that needs to go away. Introverts can, in fact, be the life of a party. Introverts can be strong leaders. Extroverts can sit quietly and attend to tasks in solitude. The question is not whether we can do something that comes less naturally; the question is what brings us energy and what takes it away.
3. Extrovert knowledge: I do not have a strong personality.
Steve and I were hanging out the other day when he told me: “Matt, you have a strong personality, man.” Upon seeing my raised eyebrows (and hearing my immediate request for an explanation), he said it was because I didn’t hesitate to share my opinions – with or without being asked. I was shocked. Saying whatever comes to my head is as natural as breathing for me. It’s not that I want to control a conversation or pass judgment on someone else’s opinion; it’s more that I have a… kind of innate and immediate desire to share what’s on my mind.
But I’m learning that, to someone who doesn’t share that desire, I can come across as too strong. In fact, I was showing a different friend an early version of this essay when he said, “Matt, you do have a strong personality.” Before the words were out his mouth the words “That’s something an introvert would say!” just leapt from mine. Oops.
4. Extrovert knowledge: almost never pay attention to the first thing I say.
Like many extroverts, the first words out of my mouth are the first step in processing something that I am feeling. Sometimes it’s this extreme: there are times when the first time I’ve thought about something is the first time I’ve said it out loud. I mean, it’s not real until it’s external, right?
(Some fellow extroverts and I have come up with a system to help others know whether what we are saying is just processing data or actually making a decision. At the end of a well-thought decision, we say the word “beep”. E.g., “Let’s go out for a burger” means “I might actually want a burger, but could be equally happy with Chinese or pizza. What do you want to do?” While “Let’s go out for a burger, beep” means “After careful discernment I want to eat a burger. Final answer.” It’s helpful, though it does earn me stares at times.)
Truthfully, I’ve found it’s helpful for me to say things like “I’m just trying this on” or “I’m just processing externally” to help people realize that I’m still working through something. Often the first statements I make are not pronouncements of truth, they’re the beginning of a process of discovering the truth.
5. Introvert knowledge: even though he’s sitting quietly, Steve really is listening to me.
As an extrovert, when I listen to someone else I process it externally. I will nod, or say “mmm hmmm”, or shift around in my seat – do something to help process the data. Steve though might do none of that… and still be listening! We all have different ways of listening. I know that, but, and I say this to introverts near and far, please know that when we introverts try to elicit a response from you, we’re not trying to be patronizing – we just actually don’t understand how you could be listening when you don’t say something. Really. If Steve doesn’t give me some kind of external clue that he’s paying attention I’ll probably say something like “you know?” or “Do you understand?” or “Are you alive in there?” or “Pay attention to me!”
6. Extrovert knowledge: I think everyone in the world is an extrovert.
Seriously, I do. But then Steve seems to think the same thing about introverts. Maybe it’s just another example of how deeply ingrained this stuff is in us. An aside: Steve sometimes gives me looks like “Why on earth are you saying that out loud? Can’t you just keep that inside?” The answer: no, I can’t.
7. Introvert knowledge: Steve thinks everyone in the world should be an introvert.
Seriously, he does. But, just like it would make my introvert friend’s life much simpler if I’d just shut up, it would make my life much simpler if Steve would just process out loud. Thing is, in the end both of us actually think that we’re better off with the diversity. If we both try to understand how the other processes data and expends energy, we can not only learn from each other, we can meet halfway. Sometimes I can quiet down to let others talk and express themselves. Likewise, sometimes Steve can share more of what’s going on internally, too.
8. Extrovert knowledge: I need quiet time.
For many of my friends, the most shocking thing about my entering the Jesuits is that I had to make a 30-day silent retreat. Invariably, after telling them what I was doing, they’d exclaim: “How could you be silent for 30 days?!?” Simple: I need quiet time. Just like we can all get depleted, we can also over-charge. Too much on the side of the external leads to dissipation. Too much on the side of the internal leads to isolation.
9. Extrovert knowledge: I am not a negative person… or at least I might not be.
Another huge surprise early on in Jesuit life was being told that I could, sometimes, be a negative influence on the community (a community just loaded with introverts, I might add). Why? Because when something bothered me, I shared it with someone… or everyone. And, yes, sometimes this can be healthy, but other times people (myself included, probably) need to process things inside before sharing them outside. For me, the challenge is finding appropriate outlets for that negative energy and not to dwell on it. The up-side is that usually, once I process the negativity, it goes away. Sadly, if I do it poorly, I’ll end up leaving Stewart-shaped-bruises around my community.
10. Extrovert & Introvert knowledge: I’m an extrovert, Steve’s an introvert, but we both have choices.
One of the downsides of any personality inventory is that it produces labels that aren’t always helpful and that can lead to painful, self-limiting stereotypes. This is the same sort of problem as saying “Well, I’m Irish so that means I drink a lot.” or “I’m Italian so I’m just emotional and have to talk with my hands.” Regardless of heritage or how we process data and expend energy, we need to take responsibility for our actions. Yes, I need to process data externally, but that does not give me license to say whatever comes into my (fool) head. I need to make good choices about when and how and with whom I process. Hurting others and then hiding behind the “Sorry, I’m an extrovert” shield is just as harmful as never sharing one’s feelings or thoughts or dreams with another soul and hiding behind being introverted.
So, how do you process data? What gives you energy? What about your friends?4
Some people wonder how useful these terms really are. Do they just end up stereotyping or can they really help us understand one another? Learning to live with an awareness of the ways people process data and interact with others has been one of the most valuable things I’ve learned so far in my Jesuit formation. Cain summarizes this quite well in her TED talk:
Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase [her metaphor for personality] and why you put it there. So, extroverts, maybe your suitcases are also full of books, or maybe they’re full of champagne glasses or skydiving equipment. Whatever it is, I hope you take these things out every chance you get and grace us with your energy and your joy. But introverts, you being you, probably have the impulse to guard very carefully what’s inside your own suitcase, and that’s okay. But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope that you will open up your suitcases for other people to see, because the world needs you and it needs the things you carry.5
Cain’s insights, and personality inventories in general, are useful tools. They give us new perspectives on others and ourselves. They encourage us to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and to be able to care for and about the Steves (and the Matts) of the world in ways that they need; not only the ways we feel comfortable.
— — // — —