Are You an Introvert, an Extrovert, or Just a Rude Prick?
Oh, aren't you just a precious little wallflower.
In 2012, Susan Cain published Quiet, a book that's become a kind of manifesto for introverts everywhere. She argued that Western civilisation is dominated by loud-mouthed extroverts; that introverts are undervalued by society; and that humanity is underachieving as a result. There's no real science there, but it's pretty hard to disagree because, well, look around you.
Since the book came out, a sort of fledgling internet culture of vocal introverts has emerged. Part self-help group, part activist community, the New Introverts have generated streams of articles, memes and commentary explaining what Introverts are, why they behave the way they do, and how they should be treated.
Superficially, it's all quite appealing. There are endless sets of questions online that you can use to diagnose yourself, and most of the ones I've tried put me firmly in the introvert category. I enjoy my own company, long walks in the wilderness, I'm not keen on parties, I screen calls habitually, I like to hog my own bench on the train, I'm a writer, I hate networking, I don't enjoy small talk much. It's quite tempting to believe that I'm a special and precious flower, one of many, and you should all be a lot nicer to us.
Except a whole bunch of people who know me are now furiously raising their eyebrows. Long-suffering colleagues and bosses who know I rarely hold my tongue in meetings; people who've seen me on stage debating politicians or giving talks in front of hundreds of people; friends used to me loudly venting my opinions in the pub like the big boring twat that I am. If I'm really an introvert, I'm a pretty shit one.
The issue with this kind of multiple-choice self-diagnosis is that the answers change depending on the situation. Take this test in the Guardian, for example. "I enjoy Solitude" – well, it depends what mood I'm in and whom you're asking me to spend time with. "I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities" – well, again, it depends. Is the group activity karting with some mates, or a dance with Maidenhead's local branch of the Conservative Bankers Association? You can't give binary answers to these kinds of questions because most of us are different in different situations.
To get around this problem, some psychologists have started talking about "ambiverts" – chameleon type personalities in the middle of the spectrum who can swing either way for a period of time. It's very convenient. Too convenient in fact, because once you get into the question of how to classify people in an objective way, things start to fall apart.
The basic problem is there's no such thing as "an introvert" or "an extrovert" in science. That isn't to say that there aren't introverted people, or that the word isn't sometimes useful; but there's no such diagnosis as "introvert", and no clear-cut widely-accepted test that you could use to scientifically determine that person A is an introvert, an extrovert, or somewhere in between. At best, you can ask people a bunch of questions, put their answers on a scale, and make some kind of judgment call on where "normal" is upon that scale.
To make things worse, a lot of these tests rely on self-reporting. The vast majority of people who call themselves an introvert or an extrovert have never been properly evaluated. They're making a judgment call about themselves, and people are notoriously shit at being honest about their character traits. Even when psychologists are involved, we're back to dubious multiple-choice personality tests like Eysenck's Personality Inventory (EPI), a 50-year old psychology tool regarded by some modern researchers as " logically incoherent", or the laughable Myers-Brigg Personality Test.
Once you realise that, it's pretty obvious a lot of research on introverts and extroverts is on pretty shaky ground. This study on the ability of introverts to respond to non-verbal communication is a great example – it's based on a dubious old personality test (EPI), and the subjects are a pretty small group of local students, so not exactly representative.
There's an argument that maybe the science doesn't matter much. Susan Cain's book was never really intended as a scientific thesis, but a manifesto for a particular kind of person – the quiet types, the people who don't always speak up and as such habitually see their wishes trampled on by a loud minority. Taken at face value, it's hard to criticise people calling for a more intelligent and considered approach to life.
There is a problem though, and it's labels. Labels are incredibly powerful things when it comes to mental health, as I wrote when reviewing Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. "At times labels can seem convenient or comforting to hold on to, but get too attached and you may find that you're no longer holding the label – the label is holding you."
You can get a sense of this when you see some of the advice available online for dealing with introverts. One heavily circulated cartoon from last year contains lines like: "Say hello be polite and relaxed, show that you recognise and approve of their presence. It is important for introverts to feel welcome – they won't spend their precious energy on someone who doesn't want them around. If you have interesting/important news to mention, mention it. Don't press for gossip."
Readers are encouraged to deal with the introvert as a stunted and vulnerable emotional cripple, incapable of communicating their needs in even the most basic fashion. The introverts reading are encouraged to fill that role themselves. To be fair to the author, I'm sure they didn't intend for the cartoon to be a substitute for mental health advice, but it's typical of the advice out there, and I'm not sure how healthy it really is.
Once you've decided that you're an introvert, it's easy to fall into the trap of living your life according to that label. There's no need to change your behaviour or evaluate the way your deal with other people. You have a diagnosis, a card to play. The rest of the world is at fault, and you have an army of bloggers to back you up. How likely are you to challenge your limits, when 30 seconds of googling is enough to find a million willing enablers? Are you really an "introvert" or are you just being a bit rude? Who knows. But in the absence of any real definition, I'm not in any rush to label myself.
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