The introversion/extroversion interface

Time to revisit the ever-popular topic of introversion. There’s this old Atlantic Monthly article on the subject that was discussed recently by Kevin Drum and Chad Orzel. In general I thought this article tended to overstate matters, and was overly harsh on extroverts (maybe this was intended for comic effect). For example, this paragraph:

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

The “barking and yipping” bit is just obnoxious, but more importantly, I’ve met plenty of extroverts who understand introversion. Usually they tend to have done some reading on the subject rather than having an intuitive grasp of what it’s like, but they still do understand. On the other hand, it’s true that some extroverts really don’t understand, and when I meet such people they will usually either write me off as aloof and uninteresting, or get offended that I don’t want to talk to them, or regard me as a weird and fascinating specimen in which case I will have to fend off endless questions about why I’m so quiet. So, one shouldn’t do any of these things. But I thought the article went to far in the opposite direction: the author seems to not like to hear people talk at all, and suggests that introverts be left alone:

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.
Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”
Third, don’t say anything else, either.

I read this and thought, “That’s exactly wrong!” Because when I’m in a social situation, and I’m not talking to anyone, it’s really great if some extroverted person comes along and talks to me and gets me involved in the conversation. But I realized this relates back to the distinction between introversion and shyness—regardless of how introverted I may be in general, if I go to a party (for example) it’s because I want to socialize and connect with people, and then it’s only my shyness that’s a barrier. So for introverts who aren’t shy, standing alone lost in thought may signal something different.
In any case, one shouldn’t assume that just because an introvert isn’t talking, he doesn’t want to be talked to. The author of the Atlantic Monthly article doesn’t seem to like extroverts very much at all, but I’m the opposite: I often really enjoy conversations with talkative people, because a conversation where I’m supplying only 10% of the dialogue is a lot easier and more comfortable than one in which I need to supply 50%.
I suspect that if I weren’t shy, I’d be a lot less introverted (although not quite extroverted).

19 thoughts on “The introversion/extroversion interface

  1. Mason

    I’ve been the person at the party sitting down and waiting for someone to come and talk to me because I can’t actually approach anybody. In fact, I’ve been that person a lot—which is why I sucked ass at Rotation, among other things.
    I think perhaps the person writing this article should have been a bit more specific and just stated how he/she wants people to react to him/her.
    As for ‘interesting specimens’, aren’t most of us examples of that?
    How did he get that way? He must have been dropped as a child…several times. And it must have been an odd number of times, because drop sequences with even parity just cancel out.

  2. Justin

    Interesting… So how does one disentangle shyness from introversion? I’m curious to know what a non-shy introvert is like, if such a person exists. :-) Or a shy extrovert, for that matter.
    I guess my opinion of extroverts is somewhere between the Gazebo and the article – as the Gazebo says extroverts are extremely handy in social situations (and they don’t even have to be actual extroverts, “less introverted” is quite sufficient as my wife can attest), but outside of those rare social situations they’re just plain annoying. Ugh, unpleasant memories of high school bubbling to the surface, must think of something completely different now…

  3. Lemming

    The way I look at “shy” and “introverted” are pretty close, but slightly different. They overlap most of the time for me, but “shy” doesn’t imply not wanting to talk to people, where as “introverted” does.
    Often I’m both, but sometimes I’m very specifically one or the other. On rare, special occasions, I’m neither. Wheee!
    Oh yeah, and… ZOMG SHY == TEH THRED BLOAT OLOLOL!1!

  4. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Well, it’s one thing to be thought of as an interesting person to have a conversation with, and another to be an interesting specimen for a kind of impromptu sociological study. It’s the latter treatment that I object to.
    Justin: I guess these are mostly internal degrees of freedom: the non-shy introvert doesn’t feel anxiety or discomfort in social situations, but finds them draining and often prefers his own company. The shy extrovert presumably craves social interaction but at the same time has anxiety about it. As I understand it there are people of both types, but it’s hard for me to tell what specific people are thinking in these situations, so I don’t have any examples to point to. On the other hand it’s easy to disentangle them in my own mind, which leads into my response to:
    Lemming: Shyness and introversion rarely overlap for me; they are actually more opposite to each other. I’m feeling most introverted when I’m with a group of people and I want to be alone, and I’m feeling most shy when I’m with a group of people and I want to be more involved with what the group is doing. It’s tricky for an outside observer to tell the difference, though, because both situations involve me standing around and not talking.

  5. Mason

    I’ve never been the subject of any social experiments. I swear. [[Notices the red bar and starts yelling and waving frantically at the person behind the screen.]]

  6. Jenny

    I think most people confuse shyness and introversion. I went through most of my life thinking I was an introvert and that the hyperventilating panic at social interaction was just part of being introverted. After the forced social interaction at Tech and dating and marrying the king of the extroverts, I now realize that I’m a shy-extrovert. This boils down to mean I only like people I already know. Hence, even at Berkeley, nearly all my friends are Techers.
    Non-shy extroverts are really important for shy people. I never would have spoken to anyone at Tech if people hadn’t come up to me and started conversations. Now, I still have panic attacks at receptions and other people’s parties, but Mr. Extrovert carries the conversation until I am comfortable enough with the new people to join in. (This sometimes takes several meetings.) Heck, Gazeebo, you still make me nervous, and we’ve known each other for HOW many years.

  7. Mike^2

    I’m a non-shy introvert. I think. Sort of. My definition of the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that it depends where you get your energy from. An introvert finds social situations draining, and finds being alone gives them energy. An extrovert finds being alone draining, and gets energy by interacting with others. Being shy is about being uncomfortable in social situations, especially those where you’re meeting new people.
    In my case, I’ve actually got both introverted and extroverted tendancies. Most of the time, interacting with other people is draining (though usually enjoyable), and being on my own is relaxing. If the ratio of time swings too far towards solitary time, however, it switches over; this is why I’ll sometimes show up at Zif’s place after a weekend of sitting around playing video games. Spending time on my own is usually good, but too much time in that sort of company starts getting to me after a while. It’s just that the ratio that I’m comfortable at is still on the introverted end of things.
    So what’s it mean if I’m kind of both an introvert and an extovert?
    I’ll preempt Lemming’s comment, ’cause I know what it’s going to be: “It means you’re a pervert.”
    Shut up, Lem. :)

  8. Lemming

    “Pervert” is hardly the word I’d use. Hrm. Perhaps “jumps both sides of the fence”, or even “likes to pitch and catch”?
    Seriously though, I think it just means you’ve got sense. A Carnot engine, for example, requires a hot and cold temperature bath. Whereas I have managed to survive being exclusively social or antisocial (more the latter, to be honest) for long periods of time, it’s always felt… unbalanced.
    There’s a huge space of possibilities as to how I might react to a social situation, and I’ve only managed to isolate a few of the variables at this point. Like Jenny pointed out, it’s a lot easier to interact with people I know, and I tend not to be shy around my friends, though (though though!) I can still be introverted. Meeting a few new people while hanging out with friends has always been a lot easier for me than trying to talk to people when the only person I know is in the next room preparing dinner.
    Similarly, there’s a big effect just from location. If I’m in a place where I feel at home I’m far more relaxed. Places like home-home, home, 170, Lloyd, Curtis & Jenny’s old place (still getting used to the new one) and maybe a few others… By the way, here’s my definition of a place you can call “home”: anywhere you can wake up in the morning and know where you are before you open your eyes.
    Finally, how can I really talk about this without mentioning alcohol? Since I hardly put my inhibitions to good use anyway, the less productive inhibitions (read: shyness) get tossed by the wayside first. Even in company I’m familiar with it makes me more relaxed. Two to three beers, good company and optionally some good food, mix vigorously, you’ve got yourself an evening. (Note that the company has to be good, but the beers don’t. Also, the more beer you drink, the less good the food has to be.)
    “Mmm, beer. Now there’s a temporary solution.”

  9. Lanth

    Most of my friendships growing up were with extroverts, mainly because I needed someone to “draw me out” socially and overcome my natural shyness. But I’m certainly more introvert than extrovert–I remember recently a night where there were nine people staying in our apartment, and although they were all people I knew well enough to not be nervous around, that was definitely more people than I wanted to be surrounded by. Even though I generally enjoy spending time with friends, I also need time alone or I start feeling antsy.
    I don’t think there’s a problem disentangling shyness and intro/extroversion; I know my sister tends to be a shy extrovert, while my mother is a non-shy introvert. My sister definitely gets energy from interacting with other people (extroversion as per Mikemike’s definition), but is anxious and uncomfortable with people she doesn’t know (shyness as per Gazebo’s definition). Likewise, my mother doesn’t feel anxious in large social settings, but she finds them tiring and emotionally draining.

  10. Arcane Gazebo

    Regarding alcohol: if I drink enough it does help, but it’s a threshold effect that seems to kick in at 90-95% of the level at which I start to feel sick. So it’s tricky for me to hit that window properly; I’ve only managed it once or twice.

  11. Lemming

    I suppose I just have an easier time drowning my anxiety–but also, since I won’t drink in a social situation that I’m not already at least somewhat comfortable in, I have no idea how well it stacks up against full-blown anxiety. Getting loosened up at Friday Beer at the Ath, for example, only takes one or two (if that!), whereas the last time I drank at a party with people I didn’t know as well I had a good bit more (4-5 maybe?) and only came out of my shell a little bit.
    I guess I mean to say it never solves anything by itself–it’s just a lubricant for a machine that gets a little stuck. There are times when nothing but a monkey wrench (applied with great force, just below the wisdom protruberance) is the only thing that’ll do the task.

  12. Mason

    I am fine once I know people, but before that I tend to do my fly-on-the-wall routine. I do much better when I either meet people through somebody I know well or when there is an extrovert involved. Extroverts are _really_ useful and can make me comfortable.
    When I go to some of those department holiday party type things that many programs have, it tends to be very uncomfortable even among people I know because somehow it’s turned into a more formal environment. I am similarly horrible at forced things like Rotation.

  13. Justin

    Mason, department holiday parties rock! It’s all about the free food, who cares about socializing there? Maybe you’ve been out of grad school a bit too long… :)

  14. Arcane Gazebo

    You guys get free food at your department holiday parties? Ours has a cover charge, even if one was playing the role of Annoying Question Man in the traditional first-year skit.

  15. Zifnab

    I’ll get my two cents in a bit late here: i’ve always felt I was both shy and introverted. I also agree on the difference between introvert/extrovert as L pointed out.
    I wonder how much of my perception is from the past though – I remember very distinctly when I first realized I was shy and didn’t like to be around people a lot. But i’ve changed a lot since then, so perhaps my viewpoint forgot to catch up.
    I’m pretty sure i’m still an introvert, as I go crazy if i’m around people too much. That seems to be tempered though by my extroversion from GMing a lot – there’s something manic about running games like that and having to be everywhere at once, it’s really quite fun/energizing, at least until it’s over and I collapse.

  16. Arcane Gazebo

    Heh, you’re not a bit late as long as I haven’t put up any new entries. (My laptop’s network adapter died and I’ve been in lab a lot, hence the lack of new posts.)
    GMing is an odd case for me, because it’s the sort of thing that my shyness should prevent me from doing. But I seem to go into the same kind of trance that gets me through physics talks, where the part of my mind that would normally be very self-conscious and anxious just shuts off. It would be nice if I could get into this mode in a wider range of situations, but it seems to mostly work for things that I can prepare for in advance, at a certain level of detail.

  17. Lemming

    Hrm, that makes me think of, in a more general sense, the rare times when my personal weaknesses seem to disappear. It’s only under some very particular and rare circumstances, but there have been special times in my life when all my little retardednesses that normally hold me back suddenly hold no weight. At those special moments I’m actually the man I want to be. Shame it’s only once in a blue moon.

  18. Mason

    Holiday parties: The Cornell Holiday parties had free food. Georgia Tech’s math department did not, but the physics stuff sometimes did. (The latter took the form of a couple physics lunches and a couple Center for Nonlinear Science holiday parties.)
    As for other stuff, for me it’s a matter of comfortable environment versus not. When I am with my friends, I am comfortable (except for those pretentious holiday parties with a cognizantly different environment). The trick for me is meeting people. I suck at it. I’ve gone through years at a time without meeting anybody I actually want to keep in touch with.

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