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Introvert or Extrovert? Does it Matter?

I have always thought of myself as an extrovert because I am quite chatty. I can talk to anyone, about anything (but not at any time- best before 8 pm). I can strike up a conversation in any setting. Even when I was a little girl, starting around age 5, I would travel across the country between my divorced parents. Invariably, I would deplane very excited about the amazing conversation I had with the passenger next to me. Way before 9/11, the 1970's were a peak time for hijacking. Regardless, I was never afraid of strangers, in the airport or on the flight. I am still this way: I like meeting people and hearing their stories.

The classic definition of introvert vs. extrovert that I have adhered to is something akin to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test model used to help determine how people perceive the world around them and make decisions. It is based on where a person gets and gives energy: extroverts get/give energy outside themselves while introverts get/give energy mainly in their own internal world. Since learning about the MBTI in college, I've taken the test several times. I can't remember all the categories or which letters best described me but I am certain I was always an "E" for extrovert. Yet, over the past decade or so, I've started to question if "E" is the letter of my "ideal" self rather than my "real" self. You are supposed to answer the questions honestly but...what if you don't really know yourself when you are taking the test?


I recently read a fascinating book by Susan Cain on the subject, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012). She says there really is no all-purpose definition of introversion and extroversion that modern personality psychologists can agree on. But most do agree that E's and I's differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well, that each work differently and that they differ in social styles. It is also important to know that shyness is NOT the same thing as introversion: "The mental state of a shy extrovert sitting quietly in a business meeting may be very different than that of a calm introvert- the shy person is afraid to speak up, while the introvert is simply overstimulated- but to the outside world, the two appear to be the same." She then goes on to give an informal quiz to help you determine where you are on the introvert-extrovert spectrum and, much to my surprise, I was 12/16 introvert and only 4/16 extrovert. (pp. 10-14)


Does it matter if you are one or the other? It is only since the early 1900's that "having a good personality" became a "thing" and extroversion became the cultural ideal. Only then did Americans start to embrace the Culture of Personality and focus on how they appeared to others. "(Andrew) Carnegie's metamorphosis from farm boy to salesman to public speaking icon is also the story of the rise of the extrovert ideal. Carnegie‘s journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the 20th century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act in job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children. America had shifted from '...a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality'- and opened up a Pandora’s box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover" and “Americans started to focus on how others perceive them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining."(p.21) So, extroverts became more visible, more popular, more electable, more likely to become leaders and more likely to be revered as "ideal". The process begins in childhood. And what about the roughly 1/3 of the population who are introverts? You have to read the book! (Just kidding.) The book elaborates on ALL the things that introverts bring to the world. "Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves." (back cover)


Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again. - Anaïs Nin


Why do I bring this up here? Because I believe so strongly in authenticity and honoring one's true self. We are most powerful and useful when we act out of our own integrity. It requires getting quiet to really get in touch with our inner truth so we know what "integrity" actually means. I want every person to know who they really are, embrace who they really are, introvert or extrovert, and make their genuine contribution to building a better world. Susan Cain writes, "If there is only one insight you take away from this book...I hope it's a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself." (p.15)

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