This is the age of the hard sell. We judge books by their covers. We buy products that do exactly what they say on the tin. Who has time for subtlety or understatement? What novelist Saul Bellow called the ‘moronic inferno’ of modern life — multi-channel TV, advertising, cold calls — swirls around us. No wonder people seem to be shouting louder just to make themselves heard.
This, it would seem, is a world made for extroverts. Only the outspoken survive. Don’t life coaches, relationship doctors and careers advisors tell us we need to be ‘out there’? What could be easier for a naturally outgoing person than to dive into a crowd of strangers and start networking like crazy? Pity the poor introvert looking on with a mixture of envy and resentment.
Except that this binary, either/or relationship is not nearly as straightforward as it seems. Although we have come to see extroverts as outgoing people and introversion as shorthand for shyness, Carl Jung’s original definitions were much broader. When he first used these terms in the 1920s, Jung defined introverts as people who preferred their internal world of thoughts, feelings and fantasies, while extroverts related more powerfully to the external world, other people and activities. As psychologist Dorothy Rowe, author of The Successful Self, explains: ‘Either we are “people persons”, who judge ourselves in terms of how others respond to us, or we are “what have I achieved today?” people.’
These definitions have been widely used by psychologists ever since, as a way of dividing personality types. One of the most popular assessments, the Myers-Briggs personality test (you can take one at www.humanmetrics.com), considers extroversion and introversion in terms of where an individual gets his or her energy from. According to this approach, an extrovert tends to draw energy from interactions with other people, while an introvert is more self-sufficient, drawing on his or her internal world.
But are you born an introvert or an extrovert? Or is it possible to develop extroversion? Psychotherapist Christine Webber believes your personality type is largely to do with your life experiences.
‘If your father said you were stupid for not understanding a question, or teachers constantly put you down, this is likely to affect how confident you feel about speaking up,’ she says. ‘And if friends were always shouting out correct answers to questions before you, that may have reinforced this inner commentary and made you retreat.’
But if we probe deeper into the impulse towards introversion, there seems to be as much nature as nurture behind it. Psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that introverts may, paradoxically, avoid stimulation because they are already sufficiently stimulated by everyday life. It is the extrovert ‘thrill-seeker’ who craves more attention.
Meanwhile, in her groundbreaking book The Introvert Advantage, US psychotherapist Marti Olsen Laney highlights research into the workings of the brain that suggests that the signal to an introvert’s brain follows a much longer path than it does with an extrovert’s. While introverts may take longer to react to a question, they make a lot more ‘mental connections’ on the way so, when they do, their response may contain more substance. Extroverts have to make an effort to think as deeply as introverts do naturally.
Today, we may value the extrovert but, historically, it is the introvert who has been seen as the more mature, deep-thinking and gifted individual. Epictetus, the stoic Greek philosopher, famously observed that, as we had two ears but only one tongue, we should spend twice as much time listening as talking. Three centuries earlier, Epicurus had said that we should ‘live in secret’, withdraw from the excesses of city life and enjoy a few profound friendships — classic introvert behaviour.
As recently as the early nineteenth century Romantic period, restraint and reticence were regarded as great human virtues. Outside the Western world, this is often still the case. As Andrew Mallett of training company Present Action points out, ‘In many Asian cultures, extrovert behaviour is seen as crude. It is much more usual to be introverted.’
So when are we going to wise up to the power of the introvert? According to Gillian Rankin, a partner at business-psychology firm ML Consulting, while extroverts are seen as people who perform better in the workplace, particularly in group situations, many employers are beginning to come around to the way introverts do business. ‘Extroverts are ready to verbalise and “talk their thoughts”,’ she says. ‘In fact, they may get halfway through and say, “Oh, but that isn’t true at all, is it?” Introverts think before they speak, and develop their ideasquietly, by reflection. This means they tend to be good listeners and have a depth of concentration.’
Indeed, occupational psychologist Rob Davies, managing director of consultancy firm Water For Fish, believes extroversion can be overestimated. ‘It’s true that extroverts get their energy from relating to other people, but that doesn’t, for example, necessarily make them natural networkers,’ he says. ‘You can be a shy extrovert, who finds making initial contacts difficult.’ Nor are extroverts always the best people at delivering messages. ‘It’s the received wisdom that they are “natural skilled communicators”,’ Davies adds. ‘But if they are only ever on “transmit”, you can’t get a word in.’
Extroverts also make for high-maintenance friends, who require constant feedback and attention. ‘They depend on it,’ says Davies. ‘Introverts are not so energised by the outside world. It doesn’t matter so much to them because they have less invested there. An introvert can happily go through life without very much feedback at all. If a friend criticises them, they might say, “Well, that’s just your point of view.”’
But this doesn’t mean that introverts can afford to shut themselves off. To meet people and form relationships, as well as earn a living, it is necessary to function well with others. While introverts are not necessarily shy — shyness is a separate social anxiety — they often find social situations draining and struggle with small talk. Webber recommends that introverts rehearse techniques to make them feel more confident. ‘Practise meeting someone in front of a mirror,’ she suggests. ‘Make eye contact with yourself and ask an open question rather than one that could solicit a one-word reply.’
Indeed, according to Olsen Laney, both introverts and extroverts have important lessons to learn. An introvert herself, she believes that, while you can’t change your essential personality type, ‘you can learn to work with it and not against it’. One of the steps towards doing this is to accept that we are not a world of two opposite types, diametrically opposed. ‘Introversion and extroversion are at opposite ends of an energy continuum,’ she explains. We each fall somewhere along the line between the two extremes. You may be very, or just a little, introverted, and that affects the way you operate and the ‘balancing’ skills you need to learn.
‘Extroverts need to balance their “doing” time with intervals of just “being”, or they can lose themselves in a whirlwind of anxious activities. Extroverts offer much to our society — they express themselves easily, they concentrate on results, and enjoy crowds and action.’ Meanwhile, introverts should not retreat from the world and underestimate their abilities. ‘Introverts need to balance their “alone” time with “outside” time, or they can lose other perspectives and connections. Introverted people who can balance their energy have perseverance and the ability to think independently, focus deeply and work creatively.’
Even the most introverted person can learn tools to help overcome barriers, and function in the extrovert world. ‘A lot of what we perceive as extrovert behaviour is often just masking,’ says body-language expert Judi James.