an extrovert speaks (quelle surprise!)

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Now that exams are over and the tenure decision is in, I'm able to pull out some ideas that have been back-burnered for a while and give them some thought.

Since I'm an extrovert, however, thought is synonymous with talking out loud. And, not coincidentally, the topic I'm thinking and talking about today is the extrovert/introvert divide.

(Caution: this is quite lengthy. I wrote it Sunday while sitting in the "parent's corner" of the local gaming store during my son's Yu-Gi-Oh tournament, but couldn't post it 'til today because I was waiting for permission to use material from private e-mail.)

I am almost a textbook example of a Jungian/MBTI extrovert. When I take personality tests, my "E" is generally off the scale (as is my "intuitive" score). One of the reasons I love teaching is that it regularly puts me in the center of a group of people, and that's where I draw my energy from. While I enjoy spending time alone, I can only do it in small bursts--I'd almost always rather have friends with me. (I read about Dervala's travels with a mixture of envy and astonishment--I could never, never do what's she's doing. Not because I'd be afraid to travel to those places, but because I couldn't possibly spend weeks at a time traveling anywhere without one or more close friends to share the experience with.) When I fantasize about "time away," the fantasies always involve other people as a part of the escape.

My husband and my best friend*, however, are classic introverts. Both are wonderfully warm, caring, likable people. But both find themselves exhausted and drained after prolonged social interaction, and torn between amusement and frustration with what to them is my constant babbling--but to me is the normal process of working through thoughts and ideas.

Over the past year, Elouise and I have had a couple of interesting "talks" about our differences in personality type. Most of the substance of these talks, however, has occurred in e-mail or IM. I didn't give that much thought until last night, when Gerald and I were having coffee with AKMA and his wife Margaret. She was talking about how useful IM is for parents communicating with children at college--particularly when one or both tend toward introversion, since the IM process allows a slower unfolding of the conversation.

It was an illuminating moment for me. It made it clear why my friend Elouise and I have been able to have these conversations about different approaches so much more easily in electronic media. The playing field is leveled by the nature of the medium. I can't fill all the available bandwidth with my excited ramblings--and she can carefully choose her words, making sure that what she says is exactly what she means.

When we had our first lengthy meta-conversation about these issues, it was touched off by an incident between me and a mutual friend. I'd been pushed a little too hard by this person on a bad day, and I'd behaved in a pretty characteristic (for me) way--I lashed out, and said something really hurtful. I'm not terribly proud of what I said that day, but I knew (and assumed that he would, too) that things said in the heat of the moment like that aren't that meaningful--they're like lancing a wound. Something nasty comes out, but then you can heal. But this friend was deeply hurt by my outburst, and his response was to shut down. No communication. Period. When I pushed back, I was told in no uncertain terms to back off.

So I told Elouise--via e-mail--how baffled I was by this reaction. With her permission, I'm going to quote from our dialog, because I think it's instructive. She told me: "What helped me keep the friendships I do have, is that in the same way you grew up forgiving and expecting verbal collisions, they forgave and understood the way I'd retreat. (Like a cat licking its wounds). I am not saying either way is particularly healthy. In a perfect world there would be no conflict...but clearly, what behavior is considered appropriate or offensive in anger are opposite."

We then went on to have a lengthy exchange about the whole "leave me alone" approach. I said that the longer I went without talking to someone after a fight or misunderstanding, the more I tended to blow things out of proportion, attribute meanings that weren't really there, and generally create an entire (and often inaccurate) world of hurt to wallow in. She, on the other hand, said that the longer she goes without talking to someone she's angry at, the easier it is to forget the bad and start remembering the good. Being forced to talk about the event or conflict, to her, was a lot like picking at a scar. The healing had to happen internally, with a barrier against the outside world.

The more recent conversation we had that I found enlightening happened last week after I forwarded to her Jonathan Rauch's much-cited article on introverts from The Atlantic. She noted that she found it particularly appropriate in view of our current departmental angst over policy and leadership issues. The extroverts keep calling meetings, trying to get everyone to talk about what they think should happen. The introverts roll their eyes in disgust, and count the seconds 'til they can escape back to their offices.

In our IM exchange on this, she said she's always thinking to herself in meetings "Do they feel compelled to keep talking?" And I laughed, because in fact, extroverts often do feel exactly that compulsion. I know I'm at the extreme end, but I often literally don't know what I'm thinking until after I've articulated it in conversation. That's why I'm so often involved in hallway conversations about organizational politics. Not because I want to "gossip"--because the only way I know to understand something is to discuss it.

She said she felt there was a lot of "wasted effort" in the speculation that happened in and out of the meetings. But what she sees as wasted effort, I see as a process of understanding, weighing options, incorporating new ideas, etc. It's a thought process exposed. She thought about that, then said she could see that if it was done calmly and rationally, rather than emotionally. Which goes back to that first discussion we'd had--emotion should be private, not expressed. (At which point I suggested that introverts had a lot more rules than extroverts�something I still think is true.)

Another thing that emerged from our conversation was her use of the term self-evident. I mentioned that the person who had first pointed me toward the introvert article had an e-mail address of "self@evident...", which she loved. But I said that the whole concept of something being "self-evident" seems to me to very specific to introverts. Where an introvert sees something as obvious based on observed actions, an extrovert is more likely to want to explore it, to triangulate views from multiple sources before forming an opinion. To be valid, for me, an opinion must include input from other sources--I don't believe any of us can be "objective" or see a full version of what's around us, and without asking what others see, I don't believe I'm getting a full picture.

That's where the conversation got particularly interesting--I told her that I thought the extrovert's desire to discuss things endlessly was the antithesis to the belief that something is "self-evident." She said she'd always assumed that the talk was an announcement of fully formed ideas, not a thought-forming process--that the people talking "already had their ideas, and felt a need to subject us to them." And I replied that for me, that talk is really the only thought-forming process; the thoughts aren't solid until they're expressed, discussed, poked, prodded, etc. Internally, thoughts are amorphous and unformed. When "exposed to the light" through expression, you can see if they're solid.

I could almost see the wheels turning on her side of this IM conversation now. "As things are discussed in statement form, they don't seem to ask for counter-opinions or ask anyone for different viewpoints." Followed immediately by "Hmm, but people do anyway."

Now I started thinking outside my box. "My guess is that it causes another kind of disjoint, too...which would be that when you express an idea, you see it as definite--and someone like me would be likely to challenge it, treating it as though it was still in formation. The challenge is meant, oddly enough, as assistance. But it's probably not perceived that way."

And then, alas, our children began to demand our real-time attention, and the chat came to an end. Fascinating, stuff, though. Worth consideration, I think, by introverts and extroverts alike.

* It's hard for me to use the phrase "best friend" without a qualifier--there are so many people I consider close friends. My "best friend in Rochester," my "best friends from high school," my "best friends from college"� I worry that labeling any as the best friend risks hurting the others. Probably an extrovert's trait in and of itself.

6 TrackBacks

misc. from Snapping Links on March 4, 2003 5:37 PM

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Dialogue is difficult from Ton's Interdependent Thoughts on May 5, 2003 4:21 AM

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Teresa left a comment on my post about introversion/extroversion,

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six or less from randomchaos: weblog on November 7, 2003 9:50 AM

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Re: not knowing what you think until you talk about it. Is it really true that ya'll also don't know whether or not you don't know something until you talk about it? I was reading a description of introverts the other month that said something along the lines of "when they say that they don't know something, they mean it", and a thousand bizarre interactions throughout my life, where someone would ask "do you know foo?," I'd say "no," and then despite the fact that all possible discussion should have ended at that point, it didn't, and I would be forced to say, over and over, "no, I don't know," all fell into place. Somehow the possibility that "no, I don't know" could be interpreted as an invitation to interrogation, er, discussion rather than a statement of fact just never occurred to me.

Never mind Mars and Venus, an extroverted man's far more alien to me than an introverted woman. Possibly fascinating, but utterly alien.

Ha! In fact, the first time Elouise and I talked about the whole anger thing, I kept saying "it's like looking into an alien mind."

And yes, it's really, really true that I *need* to articulate and discuss something before I really understand what I think. It's the process of articulation--of having to put words to a concept, of explaining and discussing it--that leads to sense-making for me.

As to the knowing whether I don't know...yup, I'd say that's definitely a corollary. My husband figured that out about me a long time ago. A typical conversation between us goes like this:

Gerald: What's wrong?
Me: I don't know.
Gerald: Yes, you do. What's wrong?
Me: Well...[long rambling discussion ensues]

On the flip side, as proof that even an off-the-scale extrovert can learn to communicate with an introvert, we often have this conversation:

Me: What's wrong?
Gerald: I don't know.
Me: Okay.

Heh, I can relate to the talking thing. The way I hash things out in my mind is by pacing around and essentially having a simulated conversation about the subject in my mind (sometimes it comes out loud which can be pretty scary).

And I'm talkative as hell. I'm liable to leave a five minute rambling message on somebody's answering machine if I'm not careful.

I get the 'I don't know' conversation as well but it usually goes a bit differently. Essentially, my friends know that I'm curious as hell and stubborn as a mule. So if they ask me about something and I say I don't know, they usually only have to wait for a minute or two before I start trying to find out how to do that just to get rid of that gnawing, nagging thought in my mind.

And I can't stop talking. Horrible. Horrible.

some concepts that strike me in relation to this post that might be worth exploring. they also were present in the article, but i'm not the letter to the editor type.
spectrums of behavior/poles of behavior

anyway, what i would say is that the famed test that so many people like is dated, the categories it indicates are perhaps best thought of as from a simpler time. in short while there may be more or less introversion/extroversion in a person at a certain time or place, it is not necessarilly the case at all cases and all times. nor is it the case that the labels capture the behavior well in this case, i think it reduces it, then people accept then they reify it. thus becoming more like thri descriptions, which is always part of such a test. certain categories do seem more real when they seem to map onto our lives...

in short i would be more inclined to liken introversion/extroversion to a scientized horoscope than to any indicator of actual behavior. and thinking through these terms might not capture the richness and diversity of human behavior.

ok that is this mornings philosophy of science rant, something to think about perhaps.

Jeremy, that's a reasonable criticism.

I'm responding more to the Rauch article--and its negativity towards "babbling extroverts"--more than anything else.

But it's also interesting to me how most of the people I know seem to fall squarely into one of those two approaches--"wait until you know what you think before you say anything," and "talk until you know what you think." Granted, I live in a relatively homogenous cultural context. But within that context, those do seem to be clearly delineated (and mutually exclusive) approaches, which also seem closely correlated with the traditional "introvert/extrovert" definitions.

You're right that there's always a risk of reification accompanying description. I balance that with the benefit of self-reflexive behavior resulting from the descriptions. :-)

The danger here is falling into a Rauch-inspired version of those horrible, horrible Tannen-inspired arguments about gendered kinds of conversational styles, where extroverts and introverts alike end up crying, "You don't understand me!" and the thing spirals rapidly out of control from there.

Typological exercises are useful only as temporary thought experiments, as ways of proposing relationships between things for the sake of clarity, not as absolutely valid empirical snapshots of the way things really are.

I responded to Rauch's piece by seeing a lot of what he describes in myself, as introversion, but I also am definitely someone who talks in meetings quite a lot as a way of "thinking aloud". The kind of blog that is more an online journal is the same sort of thing for me. The notion that one is saying things in front of others, or with an audience, or in a dialog, is for many people extremely clarifying. I don't have some of the problems that Rauch talks about in terms of awkwardness in groups or discomfort with small talk, though I do find small talk and social occasions with strangers wearisome (not a judgement on those who do it, it's just that it tires me out.)

So we're all mixed and muddled when it comes down to our real behavior, neither extrovert nor introvert. And at least some of the misunderstandings and arguments people have are not because two different conversational species have come together and cannot mix, but because maybe there was a real issue or incident or localism that was actually worth fighting over or being angry about. E.g., sometimes conversation is about content, not style.

You know, this is interesting; I am an introvert and I enjoyed the Rauch article not because of its "criticism" of extroverts (which I didn't see as serious critique, and more as good-natured return jabs in a never-ending circular conversation) but because it seemed to capture "me" so well. To be fair, my level of introversion is, as ELL's "extroversion level," off the charts. I enjoy talking in meetings, but only if there is a purpose--something specific to be discussed and decided (rather than endless "let's talk more about this later" tabled discussions).

I took a class in Group Dynamics at George Mason a few years ago, and although I hated hated hated the class in general, there was one exercise that proved illuminating. We took a personality-type test of one sort or another, the results of which were intended to show how we dealt with conversations and general interaction. I was surprised at the results...while they fell approximately along the lines of Introvert/Extrovert, it was more nuanced than that. Essentially, class participants were broken into four quadrants based on our conversation styles--I was in the "think things through and speak once" (for lack of a better word) group. We were by far the smallest group in the class, but what was particularly illuminating was the composition of my group.

Specifically, I was surrounded by the people to whom I had been drawn from the beginning of the course--the people who seemed particularly intelligent to me, as it turns out. The opposite group (we were broken into four groups based on how our test scores mapped on a quadrant) was filled with the people I considered irritating and grating; they never seemed to have a complete thought in their heads and yet constantly babbled in class, expecting the rest of us to listen to their incomplete chatter.

It was illuminating because I knew, at this point in the semester, that those people did occasionally have intelligent thoughts and that they were, by and large, reasonably intelligent people. I had never clarified why they seemed so horrible to be around until that test. They did what you seem to be saying is par for the course for extroverts--they thought out loud. The reason that they so rarely seemed to have anything, well, intelligent to say is that their intelligent and well-formed thoughts comprised such a small percentage of what they said out loud.

Keep in mind--I am not arguing that introverts are (or, more specifically speaking, I am) smarter--it is simply that by the time I feel compelled to say something out loud, I've already thought about it, I've already dealt with what I anticipate will be the counter-arguments or positions and resolved them--I've just done this internally, rather than on display for the people around me.

I'm writing this here, I suppose, because I haven't decided to blog extensively on this on my own. And more because I enjoyed your musings and just thought I'd share some of my own.

yes, i understand your position against the article, but you have to admit that there is more babble in society and culture than before, I look at media saturation as a likely systemic cause.

but i don't see the bimodal distribution of wait until you think or talk until you think, i think that it varies. For instance, i don't like to publish anything until i have it sorted out to my satisfaction, but I'll talk at length about possibilities in an arena, or I'll sit and just think things through. I think that introversion/extroversion if it exists at all is probably highly situtional. Yes, i do get worn out when i am around certain people for a few hours, but if i'm around others, i'm energized, excited, etc. It varies for me.

Here's the catch though, if you take the idea that humans are creatures of habit, which i take from aristotle, then over time, they tend to habituate into one or the other pattern over time. But what is habituated is probably widely varied in nature and reason, or so i hope:)

in any case, an interesting question might be whether or not bloggers and blogging has any relationship to these sets of indicators intro/extroversion or whether they are completely unrelated?

Fascinating...particularly from my perspective as an M/B mild "introvert" (a classification I agree with) who's assumed by many to be an extrovert because of certain externalities. (Yes, M/B is aged and a little silly, but not entirely offbase.)

I never thought about the idea of thinking-through-by-talking-out because my brain just doesn't work that way. But it clarifies a number of odd interchanges in the past.

I second many of the above comments. I, too, talk to sort things out and certainly never meant and never realized that it was taken as a "this is the way it is" instead of an invitation to open dialogue. Quite interesting.

My email address is

and yes i am an introvert

in fact I have been called an introvert advocate by my extravert friends who have learnt from me in their professional work (as social workers) that forcing everyone 'to have their say' is not always a good idea (which it appears is 'self-evident' to extroverts)

This topic was so interesting I had to jump in. I think the part I find problematic/questionable is the assumption that needing to process or to get multiple points of view is exclusively a trait of extroverts (I think I test as moderately introverted, FWIW). I don't always know what I'm thinking until I've processed it verbally, but it's more often through writing than speech, and more often over the phone than in person. I want the input, but it has to be on my terms.

Thanks for an illuminating and thoughtful piece from an extrovert's point of view. I am probably off the introvert end of the scale, myself. I certainly identified with Rauch's need for hours of quiet recuperation time after intense social contact.

I think one reason for Rauch's negative (although couched in humor) spin on extroverts is that we introverts feel trapped and unable to escape when around relentless extroverts, yet we are often in forced contact with them for eight hours straight. I am exposed to an off-the-scale extrovert at work just about every day. She can't even listen to report in the morning (it's a hospital) without a non-stop Howard Cosell commentary on every single patient; and she is unable to use the damned computer without muttering a comment ("Aha!" "Oh! Oh! Look at that!") every time she punches a key.

Of course, she irritates just about everybody, so I think it might have less to do with her extroversion as such (there are extroverts I genuinely like) than the fact that she is just obnoxious and stupid. As an illustration of the latter, in a few months' time she has "noticed" four different times that I am left-handed, with the remark: "Oh! I didn't know you were left-handed!"

She had a hilarious interaction with a hematologist recently. She asked them something, which they said they didn't know, and then proceeded to ask the same question about nine different ways. Finally the hematologist exploded: "I don't know! I don't know! What part of I don't know don't you understand?!!"

Hi there,

Your posting sparks intriguing thoughts in me...which I will have to chew on for a while, before being able to express myself. I guess that makes me the introvert type. However I recognize several of the more extravert traits as well: having to hear myself speak to find out how I think or feel. So as always it's not either or.

Anyway that's not what I wanted to comment on. It's the learning to recognize the different modes of communication for introverts and extraverts that gets me thinking. I used to be someone completely introvert, I always said I lived in my head and not in the world. My external behaviour seemed extravert though, but that was the shield I hid behind. After a deep personal crises I had to learn and do it differently. In light of your post, the things I learned myself to do are similar to the recognition of different modes of communication by introverts and extraverts. Never thought about it in these terms however.

As I'm into knowledge management and adhere great importance to dialogue, I'll have to brood for a bit on what your posting might mean for KM.

Kind regards,


Interesting discussion, which I was directed to from I'd like to point out one problem: introversion and extroversion are temperamental styles, not intellectual styles. It's true that introverts *tend* to see things as self-evident, but don't necessarily come to a discussion with their minds made up. What is true of your friend is not true of all introverts. There are many intellectual and psychological factors which determine how a person thinks, including how they approach discussion with others, and how they feel about the role of emotions in such discussions. Rauch's article was one person's point of view, as is yours and as is your friend's. It isn't safe to draw firm conclusions about either introverts or extroverts from a few samples. That's productive only of stereotypes and further misunderstanding.

Fantastic entry, Elizabeth! As an extrovert too who struggles sometimes with introverts (who make up the majority of bloggers), I've linked your post and written a couple of my own about this topic.

My two posts.

You're a perfect example of someone who can act like an extrovert but write and think with the depth of an introvert!




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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on March 3, 2003 9:27 PM.

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