Stereotyping Intro- And Extroversion Is Not Helping Us Self-Identify Better

People seem to have fairly set ideas about what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert.

Some people readily identify with these categories, others can’t quite put themselves into one group or another. Either way, people are drawn to this process of categorization. I think that this is because of two things: 1) people need a sense of identity, and 2) categories like introversion/extroversion are easily understood and provide a framework we can relate to (even if we relate by rejecting either category).

In general, I resist any pull towards categorization or diagnosis: people are individuals and should be treated as such. But I do recognize that it can be quite powerful to identify with a particular group and that it’s useful for people that learn more about themselves if they can identify with others who are similar.

Today then, I’d like to talk about introversion and extroversion and argue that those categories aren’t as black and white as you might imagine.  The aim is to help those that don’t identify with either category understand introversion/extroversion a bit better and potentially to find solace in knowing they can belong in one of those groups.

One of the issues here is that introversion and extroversion are such ubiquitous descriptors that they conjure an almost instant idea of what they mean. In other words, a stereotype. And I mean ‘stereotype’ without negative connotation – stereotypes are a normal part of ordering the world. The problem is when a stereotype is used to make a conclusion about any specific individual. With that in mind, let’s talk about what being an introvert or extrovert actually means, rather than the general impression the words conjure.

So when you hear “introvert” there’s a schema that’s brought to mind. I think for a lot of people, this impression is that they’re home-bodies, uncomfortable socializing and generally prefer doing things by themselves. One image that comes to mind is a 20-something sitting at home, watching their favourite show on Netflix and really glad they turned down that invite to the club. And there’s probably a cat nearby. But maybe that’s just my fantasy talking now.

Anyway… There’s an equivalent image for an extrovert in my mind – someone going out with friends, chatting, drinking, dancing, laughing. They don’t like sitting alone at home and would generally like nothing more than to be sharing things with friends. This stereotype is someone outgoing, confident in groups and generally likes interacting with others.

I have no doubt that there are people reading those descriptions, saying to themselves ‘that sounds just like me.’ But as is the case with stereotypes, it’ll be more common that people will feel like a combination of the two. Perhaps you feel uncomfortable in social situations, but love chatting with close friends, or, you’re someone who sits at home watching TV most of the time, but is very outgoing or socially confident.

So what I’d like to do is add something to how introverts and extroverts are described which will make it possible to make these more complex and (if we attend to the stereotypes) opposing behaviours, consistent.

My premise is this: common understanding of introversion/extroversion refers to how people have come to stereotype certain people; they don’t refer to the causes of that behaviour. The closest example of a specific definition of introversion/extroversion that does this is that found in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In this system, introversion/extroversion isn’t about what you do, it’s about why you do it. They ask the question: “where do you get your energy?” To expand on this: do you like to spend time in the world of people and things (Extraversion), or in the world of your own ideas and images (Introversion)?

So now let’s imagine the image of an introvert I presented above, sitting at home, not wanting to go party, happy watching 10 hours on Netflix. A lot of people that identify with this, might object strongly to being labelled an introvert, especially if they feel confident in social situations and like catching up with close friends. My simple assertion is that their objection could be quite valid as, to align with Myer-Briggs, it comes down to the reason they are sitting at home watching TV or reading books for hours.   

When you’re sitting watching a show that you love, you are transported away from your own life and into the world of the characters being presented. You feel fear and love and sadness and joy and you connect with the people in the story. When you sit alone and watch/read, you feel engaged and alive and connected. In other words, you’re getting your energy from a source that’s not part of your inner world. 

To me, it seems that our brains haven’t yet caught up with technology to the point where they can really differentiate between the emotional connection we get from fiction and that we get from other people. The main difference, of course, is that the fiction can’t feel anything back. What fiction does provides us with, is a very safe psychological space in which to experience an outward connection to others. This is what extroversion is essentially about – a felt connection to others: it’s not necessary for that connection to be felt in return.

While you might be alone, watching TV can be a very engaging and connecting experience. Especially for those extroverts that don’t find social situations very comfortable. Understanding that extroverted doesn’t mean outgoing might provide a fresh perspective for those people who love connecting with others one-on-one or with just a few people in a few circumstances (but prefer the company of fictional characters the rest of the time).

Conversely, I can imagine that there might be people who identify as introverts that spend most of their time in groups, even entertaining. Many people would see them as extroverted because of their social confidence and tendency to see seen ‘out-and-about’. However, if they are interacting with others to (for example) analyse behaviour, then this is actually quite an inner, individual experience. My point, again, is that it’s not the activity that makes you introverted or extroverted, it’s why you’re engaging in that activity and what it provides you with.

As humans, we have a need to feel like we belong to a community. Even the most fervent introvert can recognize that to have another understand them would feel rewarding. To this end, I hope I have allowed those that have worried because they haven’t been able to place themselves on an introversion/introversion scale, to find a place. For those that don’t fit. That’s fine too: maybe this can just serve to show that it’s not what you do that defines you, it’s why you do it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and have fun with Troy and Abed. TC mark

image – Basheer Tome


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