I Object to the Concepts of Introversion and Extroversion
Made-up psychological frameworks rule everything around me
I used to think I was introverted. Though I was always chatty, it used to take me a long time to recover from social activity. I deeply desired the company of others, but it exhausted me, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. I’d need to skulk in sullen silence after any conversation that was more than brief. Which is one definition of introversion, right?
But it gets tricky when you zoom in a little bit, and examine the nature of the exhaustion. Social activity didn’t drain me because it took a kind of energy out of me, like exercise would. It drained me because I was ashamed of myself. Small conversations would leave me with an overwhelming question: did they like me? And, if so, would this trick I played on them—getting them to like such an obviously ugly person—persist? I never answered these questions conclusively, they just sort of whirled around me like horseflies until the fluctuations of my mood took me elsewhere.
The first time I made out with a girl at a party, I later burst into tears, much to the warranted irritation of the deeply stoned friend who sluggishly consoled me. I was overwhelmed. What would she think of me, after the moment passed? What did others, witnessing the make-out, think of my character? It was all too stimulating; I just couldn’t take the unaccustomed rush of feeling desired and the plunge into self-doubt afterwards. I was a wounded, scared little human, in much the manner of Kierkegaard: “I have just now come from a party,” he once wrote, “where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth's orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.”
This narcissistic self-protection waxed and waned. During some seasons I was socially confident, pleased to pretentiously hold court in the university quad, delivering impromptu monologues about James Joyce to schoolmates. During others, I could barely face baristas, and I walked for hours through chilly Toronto evenings, smoking and smoking, desperate for party people to perceive me, and, also, terrified that they would. In those years, a major hobby of mine was deleting and then restoring my Twitter account.
I was eventually told that this was called bipolar disorder and given mood stabilizers. And when I got over it, and got some sun and exercise, I was like, huh. I apparently am not so introverted anymore. Conversations don’t exhaust me in the same way. And this has become more true recently. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten over most of my shame, as well as one of the last major contributions: my feeling that I had to be an interesting object, which lead to me making sure that everyone knew of my credentials during any conversation lasting longer than five seconds.
It turns out that there is not some stable attribute called extroversion that I have or don’t have. It’s contextual. Some of it is temperament: I like to talk, and I always have. But most of it is down to self-image and how I perceive my ranking in a given swathe of society, or, more importantly, how important I think ranking is, as a concept. My lack of self-worth created a boundary between me and other people: I was likely to think that I was a worthless person, and I could find evidence of that belief in any interaction. When I cleared away that boundary, everything got easier. But in some social contexts, I still show the textbook signs of introversion. Sometimes you find yourself in rooms where there’s scrutiny instead of empathy, where miserable people icily trade jabs and non-sequiturs disguised as pleasantries. That, I need to recover from.
I think this is true of many people. A lot of people labeled introverts are, partially, laboring under self-consciousness or outright trauma that could be dispelled. And, on the other side, people who are manically extroverted can be that way because they’re frantically hiding from pain and anxiety. In a state of psychological health, I think most people are pretty flexible. When we talk about ‘introversion’ or ‘extroversion,’ we’re slapping a label on a complex mess of factors, some innate, some—perhaps most—environmental and personal.
This is to be expected. We love to pathologize in our culture, and we love to brand ourselves, and we love to write frivolous non-fiction books claiming that a single factor or definition explains the world. Psychology has made a good living for itself by throwing descriptive matrices at some complex human phenomena and reinforcing them with silly surveys. Some human property correlates with some other human property—publish it! This can make for fun dinnertime conversation, or a good Internet quiz. But where it gets dangerous is in the domain of self-identification. You hear that you’re an introvert or extrovert, and label yourself as such, assuming your behavior is immutable, when, in fact, it is not. You might want to be different but you give up on the idea that this is possible.
I am not saying that there’s no such thing as temperament. There are a few rare people who, without any shame or self-consciousness, are happiest alone, in a lighthouse or a study. And some of us have what I would call a sensitive temperament, not pejoratively—I mean sensitivity to everything, to all stimuli. The sensitive people I know aren’t just marked by a greater level of introversion. They also have a fondness for curated environments where they can control their sensory environment, a tendency towards protracted rumination, and social perceptiveness. It seems to me that these people find social activity more exhausting partially because they just tend to notice more, and deep attention, while fulfilling, is also tiring. Meanwhile, the most extroverted people I know are fine if the world screams at them, they can go to six parties a night even though four of them are no fun—in certain communities, at certain ages, they are the people who are still taking drugs at 4 AM and chatting away in a second language they barely know to some guys they just met. The world’s volume is turned down for them, so they can comfortably turn it up.
So, yes—some people really are born introverts, and some people really are irrepressible social butterflies. But the vast majority of people, including me, are somewhere in between, and it’s hard to place them in one category or another, and their status changes over time. Funnily enough, this was said by Carl Jung, who defined introversion and extroversion: "There is, finally, a third group, and here it is hard to say whether the motivation comes chiefly from within or without … [this group is] the most numerous and includes the less differentiated normal man.”
As well, the idea of an innate temperament doesn’t negate the concept of mutable influences on extraversion—in fact, it adds explanatory power. Everything is a feedback loop. If you’re a person who tends towards solitude and you have a misunderstood profession—you do some obscure kind of mathematics, maybe—it can be hard to bond with most people, and you don’t get much practice, so socializing becomes more laborious. Meanwhile, if you work in fine dining and you spend all day talking to people, you develop rote patterns of conversation that can make it easier to smoothly handle miscellaneous interactions. Some dimensions of extraversion are skills, and you can only develop those skills if your environment allows it.
And the North American environment is a place where it’s hard to develop socially. We have no one social code. Moral mores flicker in and out as fast as blinking neon, and if anyone has a phone nearby, you can get canceled for a clumsy remark. We’re a society that’s often hyper-attentive to status, but doesn’t have explicit class structures to identify with or rebel against. We are radically sexually permissive but also have strong puritan tendencies. Party politics, the great mind-killer, can make us suspicious of our neighbors. Much of our social activity comes through highly mediated formats, like Twitter, where we’re rewarded for stewing over our output, and maximizing it for effect. We have fewer and fewer third spaces, places between commerce and private activity. Without collective rites of passage, or ceremonies for forgiveness, we’re not sure where we stand. We bowl alone. People say this is an extroverted society, but I think that’s kind of silly; we’re outgoing, sure, but it’s a deeply fraught kind of outgoingness.
Also, it seems to me that people who think this is an extraverted society haven’t travelled much. Seeing everyone all the time is the rule in lots of traditional societies where extended family lives at home. It's hard to get a moment alone in a shantytown. The sidewalk cafe culture in Paris makes it much more likely that you’ll run into your friends constantly, whether you’re a drinker or not. In many cities in the world, it’s normal for everyone to eat cheap food outside with their friends, every night. In these environments, you can get a lot more casual talking in, and, in many of them, there are more fixed rules of etiquette, which can be mastered to the point of not being cognitively demanding. This isn’t to lionize that way of being—much is missed when large parts of human experience are forbidden from discussion. Social codes bind and blind, to reuse a formulation of Jonathan Haidt. But it is easier to learn the game when the playing field is defined.
The beauty of our individualistic society is that it gives us opportunities to explore the weird frontiers of potential identity, over many channels of self-expression. The ironic drawback is that this gives phony experts ever more opportunities to tell you who you are, and plenty of incentive to play along with these definitions. It can be easier to grasp your own behavior if you have a category to put yourself in. But it can also give you an easy alternative to the pain of growth, or the liberation of uncertainty, which, at first, presents itself as anxiety. Someone is out there is very eager to take your money, examine you, and place you in some model of personality. They have a resonant tone of voice. Of course, you’re free to believe them. But are they a greater authority than you are?