The Tyranny of Extroversion

The Tyranny of Extroversion May 22, 2012

William Pannapacker has an exceptional piece in The Chronicle on recent studies on introversion, but it his opening experience that tells perhaps the whole of the story. As the piece rolls along he sketches some studies, one of which makes this significant observation: “According to Cain, the 19th century valued personal character based on seriousness, discipline, and honor, but the 20th century emphasized personality: selling oneself and being a “mighty likeable fellow.”

What do you see in this narrative? What does it tell us about introversion and extroversion?

Some years ago I joined my students in taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test to determine personality type. It was an assignment in a course I was teaching on vocational exploration.

Assuming there would be an average distribution of results among the 20 students, I planned a series of small-group assignments in which they would discuss their own results for each of the test’s personality dichotomies (e.g., thinking versus feeling). But a problem turned up immediately: Not one student had received an “I” for introversion. Everyone, it seemed, was an extrovert (Myers-Briggs spells it with an “a,” like “extra”). Everyone but me.

Extroverts—if you accept such categories—are oriented outward, toward other people and toward action over reflection. They draw energy from social interaction, and they tend to be outspoken and gregarious. Introverts, on the other hand, are oriented toward the inner life of thought; they tend to be reserved and cautious. They find social interactions draining, and they need solitude to recharge. It’s not that introverts are antisocial so much as that they appreciate fewer, more intimate friendships. They don’t like small talk but appreciate deeper discussions.

I knew my students well enough to suspect that I was not the only one with that tendency. A third of them barely spoke in class unless called upon. A few hardly spoke to anyone. Perhaps the introverted choices on the test were too stigmatizing to consider (e.g., “Would you rather go to a party or stay home reading a book?”). The students had used the test to confirm that they had the right, “healthy” qualities.

Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in U.S. culture, the test might as well have asked, “Would you prefer to be cool, popular, and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?” In the discussion that followed, a few students observed—with general agreement—that introversion was a kind of mental illness (and, one student noted, a sign of spiritual brokenness). “We are made to be social with each other” was a refrain in the conversation.

A few sympathetic students tried to persuade me that my introvert result was a mistake. How could I stand in front of that room, leading that very conversation, smiling at them, without being an extrovert? The answer: careful planning, acting, and rationing my public appearances. Also, my introversion fades when I become comfortable with unfamiliar people (the first weeks of classes are a strain).


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  • CGC

    Okay, here is my story and weirdness. I was an introvert and very wounded as a child and young adult. Jesus came into my life and suddenly I became an extrovert. As an introvert, I was very unhappy. As an extrovert, I am very happy.

    Now when it comes to people I am a social animal—-extrovert all the way. But when I get home during the late afternoon or night, I want my shades pulled, I don’t want to take any phone colls, and shut the outside world out. I just want to be with my family and I’m sure I sometimes do my “man-cave” thing because I don’t want to really be around anyone for a while.

  • A subject dear to my introvert heart is this. There’s a mythology of extrovert Americans and introspective Brits, but I think in this case that the stereotype has a grain of truth. Even here in the Uk it isn’t easy to be introvert. Specifically it isn’t easy to be an introvert Christian in a normative extrovert ecclesiastical culture. One specific instance of the awkwardness relates to relative lack of a positive notion of singleness. Here is my little manifesto for introverts. Now, one of my top two or three all-time posts after ‘Amish in the Uk’ (there aren’t any):

  • Adam

    I think we frequently place symptoms as the problem and then miss the true cause, especially in this discussion. The article is presented in a us vs them scenario. (The extroverts are suppressing the introverts and therefore introverts don’t get to live as good a life as the extroverts.) But I don’t believe these extroverts have it so much better. If you get underneath the gregarious chattiness you find extreme insecurity.

    The problem is that we, as a people, prefer distraction over vulnerability; introverts and extroverts alike. Extroverts are really good at creating distraction, so we all jump on them to make those distractions, and avoid the hard work of facing our fears and risking a bit to really know each other. It’s as if we’re all saying “someone just keep talking so the silence doesn’t come back”.

    If this is the problem, then the solution is not demanding equality between the verts. That just creates division. The real solution is recognizing introverts and extroverts are not as different as we want to believe. We all have to face the same terrifying reality of Otherness.

  • Alan K

    I think the article overdoes the categories. The categories are primarily about energy. As a minister I spend several hours of each work week in solitude in prayer and sermon preparation. But these activities and hours are energized by the thought of my parishioners and their respective lives. I am not one to go to parties or be the life of one that I am at. I prefer the book reading nearly all the time. But I always have scored a strong E on Myers-Briggs. My energy is derived socially, even if it is in my imagination.

  • Kristin

    The problem is clear: extroversion=good and introversion=bad.

    Introverts regularly face comments like: What’s wrong? Why don’t you speak up more? Don’t you like people? You’re too quiet. Lighten up, you’re too serious.

    How would extroverts feel if every day they constantly heard: Can you please stop talking as you are ruining the quality of the conversation? Are you capable of shutting your mouth? Your constant presence annoys me. Go read a book.

    I’m being facetious, but see? It’s no fun is it? 🙁

  • Luke

    I’ve taken that test many times with different groups and it always came out 50/50.

    However, I get what you mean. I’m an extreme extrovert, but before I knew what introverts/extroverts were I thought that the only reason anyone would choose to be alone was if they were upset. Needless to say I assumed a lot of my friends must really be hurting even when they were fine.

  • Luke

    P.S. I think it’s important for people to understand that extrovert does not equal outgoing and introvert does not equal shy. That takes away most of any stigma people may feel.

  • Barb

    Everyone who takes the MBTI should be given a very thorough explanation of the 16 different types. None of them are mental illnesses. I have used and explained the MBTI to many people and no one came away with Extroverts = good or Intorverts = bad. Actually in my workplace and it’s setting Introversion was definitly the preferred type. Same in the church that I attended there AND now in my current church it’s the same way. I have now found that before I introduce any idea I preface it with a disclaimer that I am an extrovert and that my thoughts don’t seem real to me until I say them out loud– and that I’m not looking for immediate agreement, but I would like feedback (which I almost never get right away–but I don’t really expect it.). the other three options in MBTI (sensing/intution, thinking/feeling, and Judging /perceiving and equally important to understand–AND I have found the whole thing very helpful to the people that I’ve taught it to.
    and Kristin@5–as an extrovert I have been told those things.

  • Denis S

    I don’t know if it helps… but the burden of being an introvert is also quite heavy in France…

  • DRT

    In my last church at a trustees meeting one of the trustees (a very strong estj) said that we don’t want any introverts in the church because they strange. As in introvert (intp) I did not even both fighting with the uncultured brute 😉

  • Diane


    As a classic introvert, I would certainly run from a church in which the pastor only wanted extroverts. How hard for an introverted teenager caught in such an place because of his or her parents! At this point in my life, I have accepted my gifts of introversion with joy. One joy is finding other introverts–the connection can be intense and powerful. I’ve also enjoyed finding tribes of introverts. Quakers are an introverted faith–how many extroverts can sit in silence for an hour, waiting for God to speak to them? Certain professions tend to attract introverts in droves. There’s a joy in discovery–it’s finding the secret enclaves hidden in plain sight …

  • While I think it would be unfair paint the differences in such a way that suggested that extroverts had it easy, while introverts had it hard, it is fair to say that in most cases in our culture, extroverts have it easier- again, not easy, but less difficult. Of course there are exceptions, but as a general pattern I believe it has proven itself out.

    When I discovered that I was an introvert and what that really meant, I became much more social. In fact, many people assume that I have become less introverted over time, yet the MBTI results have argued the opposite. Further, the increase of virtual community/social space has given introverts a significant boost, as it is a medium where we can thrive apart from some of the challenges we might have in “real life” contexts.

  • Barb

    DRT, when I became qualified to give the MBTI they made us sign an agreement that we would not ever give results without a full explanation of all of the types–We also learned very quickly that they are “Gifts Differing” all 16 types have very positive traits and are very valuable to the community and any group. One thing I had to say over and over is “Any type can be a jerk”. To that trustee who only wanted Extroverts–I wish I could paint a picture for him about what a church would look like if you only focused on one type. Also each of the 16 types has a shadow side. Learning to fully understand your type will help you to grow as a whole person. To Jamie (above) I doubt that you are *less introverted* now–but I would guess that you have learned how introversion can support your other preferences and therefore make you more confortable in social situations.

  • rccrosby

    During one of my homiletics classes a few years ago with preaching specialist, Dr. Haddon Robinson (author of “Biblical Preaching”), he asked us, “Which type of personality so you think makes the most effective preacher?” His answer: INTROVERTS. Ahhh, that gave many of us hope. Something about their need to depend on God and each engagement with the Word as another step of faith. So interesting!

  • I came across Stratton’s writing about a psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who worked w/ creative people, yesterday. This really felt more helpful to me than the intro/extroversion dichotomy, into which I’ve not fit (and the MBTI showed it!). I’ve experienced negative feedback from introverts who perceive me as extroverted (in comparison, I guess!), but extroversion isn’t a comfortable fit, either. I do, however, fit the creative personality description better, even though you won’t catch me living in Hollywood!

    Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We’re usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliability measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

  • Glenn Gilbert

    Thanks. I too am an introvert who teaches. I like the part about rationing speaking engagements. They are very difficult for me. I view my God-given introversion as a gift.