In the hopes of simplifying the minefield that is modern dating, or gauging if your new coworker is going to be a good culture fit, it's easy to get caught up in the hype of personality types. Whether it didn’t work out with an ex because they were a narcissist, or you and your boss don’t see eye-to-eye because your zodiac signs inherently clash, there’s no shame in wanting to glean some insight into our own and other people's interior lives. After all, life is complicated, so it’s only natural to seek out some structure. But when it comes to the introvert vs. extrovert debate, what if we've gotten it all wrong? What if none of us are here, there, or anything in between?
What makes an introvert vs. an extrovert?
As psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who introduced the concepts back in 1923 described, extroverts prefer to engage with the outer world of objects, sensory perception, and action. Introverts, on the other hand, were described as being more focused on their inner world of reflection, are thoughtful and insightful. It's this model that sets up the basis for the controversial-yet-prolific Myers-Briggs personality test.
Another way of looking at what distinguishes the two in a more self-assessing way, is reflecting on the source of one's energy. You may enjoy spending most of your time alone, but if you are energized by having others around you, then you may be an extrovert. If you're someone that may enjoy social settings but feels the need to recharge by yourself, then you could sit further along the introvert side of the spectrum. Some people compare this to being right- or left-handed, though, where having a dominant hand doesn't leave your other hand completely immobile or useless, you're just naturally better with one. This of course, is far from scientific, but it helps people to identify their interpersonal needs better.
The problem with this is that we tend to view the two groups as being behaviorally disparate, often employing the framework as a quick way to categorize people based on particular traits. Certain characteristics such as being opinionated, sociable, optimistic, or boisterous are typically associated with extraversion, while being a good listener, soft-spoken, socially-anxious, or a homebody is often thought to spell out introversion. But as René Mõttus Ph.D. writes in Psychology Today, “as handy as these labels are, they misrepresent reality. Using them assumes that people fall into distinct groups in the traits, but they don’t.”
Mõttus also points out these are all just convenient groupings that don’t say anything real — or even necessary — about nature. “There is no reason to think that nature has created introverts or extroverts,” he writes. “Instead, people can have all levels of the trait we recognize as extraversion, from very low to very high with the majority being somewhere halfway between these.”
This framework is inherently flawed, as it would mean there were only two types of people in this world capable of only two distinct groups of traits which is just wildly untrue. One way that people try to reason with this structure is through the idea of the ambivert.
What is an ambivert?
An ambivert, as originally described by psychologist Edmun S. Conklin, is someone who sits in the middle, neither purely introverted or extroverted. "This ability to oscillate between what is clearly introversion and what is clearly extraversion, to find values of life frequently in each phase of activity, is what I have called ambiversion," he wrote in a 1924 paper.
As Jung posed back in the 1920s, most people are ambiverts, a hybrid of sorts that can comfortably shift from one side to the other. But while many take comfort in identifying as such, the existence of an ambivert is still anchored in a binary. After all, if it's a spectrum we're all moving back and forth along, the concept of being in the middle is redundant, as we're all simply in constant flux.
On top of that, most of us would agree that a person's capacity for outward sociability isn't actually indicative of their personality or social comfort zones. I, for example, have long-identified as an introverted person. I'm also not one to shy away from a party, a debate, or even a chat with a stranger — as long as I get my required me-time, of course.
And the more fellow self-dubbed introverts I speak to about the matter, the more useless it seems to get caught up in these labels in the first place. For the most part, those of us who identify as introverts can still manage to socialize with ease, enjoying these occasions, while even the most extraverted of people can find joy in some time alone or a night in.
People can not only change where they’re at on the spectrum of extraversion, but maybe we all never really land anywhere.
We also have the capacity to evolve over time, moving from one side of the spectrum to another, particular in a post-pandemic world.
After years spent in and out of lockdowns, many extroverts have found themselves feeling more and more adjusted to — and even developing an inclination towards — alone time. Sure, all of us are feeling a little rusty, socially, particularly with things like small talk, corporate banter and meeting strangers. But it goes deeper for some.
As Mariam, 34, tells me, her social threshold completely turned after emerging from lockdowns. “According to all the personality tests I’ve taken, I’m firmly in the extrovert camp,” she explains. “But although I haven’t taken one recently, I know for a fact that my extroversion has dampened since Covid.
“Even though I still like socializing, I find myself feeling exhausted after each interaction, and needing to have longer breaks between engagements. I need more alone time to recuperate from social interactions, and struggle to make even the smallest of small talk with strangers,” she says.
“I’d never viewed extroversion/introversion as a spectrum before, but it seems like that’s true for me.”
But with or without a global pandemic, people can not only change where they’re at on the spectrum of extraversion, but maybe where we go wrong is in assuming people land somewhere. While it’s only natural to take comfort in frameworks that help us understand ourselves and the people around us better, there's only so much insight we can draw from these antiquated identifiers. As one study from the University of Helsinki found, almost everyone feels tired or burnt out from extended socializing, regardless of their personality. Maybe it's all just dependent on the particular context, company, environment and time.