While applying for residency I sought interview advice from friends and mentors. The wisdom followed a general theme: be yourself. The simple advice turned into a prolonged learning experience. Interviewers tend to appreciate the outgoing, opinionated “myself” that greets them loudly with a big smile and a firm handshake. The “myself” that prefers to ponder, daydream and speak softly probably would have fared poorly in the process. Being an extrovert – or at least resembling one – clearly mattered.
Behavioral psychologists like to explain human’s ability of making decision using limited information by citing the theory of evolution. If a caveman looks confident, one decides he has something to be confident about – shelter away from predators, food supply for the winter, piles of sharpened stone tools. On the other hand, a quiet and reserved person may be competent and reserved, or he may simply be clueless. Susan Cain’s popular and well-received book Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking argues this explanation is not entirely correct, and different cultures assign sometimes contradictory values to the same actions. America, though, is an extraordinarily extroverted culture. This “extrovert ideal” stems both from extroverts’ ability to deliver better first impressions and the human nature of listening to the loudest voice when in doubt.
The Extrovert Ideal
Even well before Susan Cain published her , this topic has been popular among behavioral scientists and general public alike. Until recently, most Americans could agree that extroversion is a requisite for charisma, which is synonymous with personal, professional, and romantic success. In fact, the concept of “westernization” in many Eastern cultures is essentially “extrovertization,” as does the concept of “fun” in most forms of Hollywood mainstream media. After all, Hangover would be rather boring if the bachelors, after enjoying a toast of jagermeister, sat down and had an intense but subdued game of Settlers of Catan that was as action-packed and thrilling as watching a man extending his longest road onto the waters with an opportune supply of sheep.
In bookstores, entire shelves exhibit books, each with a cover showcasing the confident author flashing her brilliant smile in power pose. The fundamental promise is this: bring out your “inner extrovert” because it is the only way to be successful.
Then, America elected an introverted senator to its highest office. Susan Cain’s book identifies the “extrovert ideal” as a fundamental problem in American culture and advocates introversion as a powerful – albeit composed – source of strength. Two years prior to the publication of Quiet, Harvard Business School describes the research of Professor Francesca Gino outlining extroversion as an occasional liability to teamwork and suggesting success as a balance of both personalities.
The existence of the extrovert ideal begs a question: Where do we draw the line between the two personalities? Can we cross over the line to the other side? Can we even be both?
There are as many definitions of introversion and extroversion as there are people defining them. The one used by modern psychologists focuses on the preferred level of sensory stimulation. That is, extroverts “recharge” mental energy under higher levels of stimulation – visual, aural, or tactile, whereas introverts “expend” mental energy to function well in similarly noisy and rowdy environments. Introverts, in turn, “recharge” by tasks with low levels of stimulation: reading, light music, solitary walks, activities an extrovert may find himself/herself “expending” energy to undertake.
The key is not which activities these personalities choose to do but lie instead in the activities that they would prefer to do in the absence of all environmental cues. No peer pressure to hang out, no final exam to study for, no earnings report due, no speech to give in front of an auditorium of a thousand faces tomorrow.
We Are Born with Our Personalities
Like height and looks, whether you are an introvert or extrovert is largely by genetics and to a smaller degree by habit. Studies show that babies who tolerate lower levels of stimulation tend to self-identify as introverts as adults, and babies who cry less often with loud noises tend to self-identify as extroverts. The correlation is not one hundred percent – far from it, suggesting personalities can shift over time. The studies simply suggest that fundamental introversion and extroversion may be less plastic as we would like to believe.
The implication in real life is that fundamentally changing our personality – becoming someone we are not – is a painful and difficult process, if possible at all. “Be yourself” is not only sensible advice for friends preparing for a job interview but also biologically imprinted on our genomes. While we are all capable of adapting specific extroverted or introverted behaviors, doing so over a long period or pushing too far towards the other end both can be profoundly exhausting.
We Are A Little Bit of Both
Most people are somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, as extreme manifestations of either introversion or extroversion are well-defined personality disorders in the DSM. Even the most outgoing men and women sometimes prefer – not just tolerate, but prefer – being alone; it just may not happen nearly as often as their introverted friends. Likewise, life would be difficult for the introvert who has zero tolerance for social interactions.
In the Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt suggests that we develop a self narrative – our personal mental autobiography – that may not correspond with reality. One form of self-narrative is how we see ourselves as a manifestation of either introversion or extroversion. Ironically, the entire shelves of self-help books may be correct in arguing the existence of an “inner extrovert” and “inner introvert” in all of us. Perhaps embracing both pieces can be the key to a happier life. I am a happy introvert who enjoys a periodic night out with friends. Likewise, I know of unambiguous extroverts who long for the occasional stretch of free time for the next James Patterson chapter.
Quiet describes “ambiverts” as people who are in the center of the spectrum. But maybe everyone is a little ambiverted to differing extents.
By adulthood most of us are keenly aware our affinities towards either pole of the introvert-extrovert spectrum (if not, this might help), but not all of us take advantage of it. Rather than allowing these classifications pigeonhole you, using them as starting guides to help you understand which activities “recharge your inner energy” can be the right approach. Finally, do not forget sometimes activities that brighten your day can appear to be contradictory to your personality self-narrative. Indulge your inner ambivert and give them a try.