Introvert-Extravert: What’s the Difference, and Does It Matter?

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Written by Scott Berry

It can be difficult to discern whether your basic disposition is extraverted or introverted, but with expert help to reach a proper understanding, you can both be true to yourself and begin make the adaptations that lead to real fulfillment.

Introvert-Extravert: What’s the Difference, and Does It Matter?

“There are two kinds of people in the world,” the wise old psychology professor declared, “people who think there are two kinds of people in the world and people who don’t.”

It’s safe to say that few people know whether they’re introverts or extraverts. Even the comparative few who know the words, and know that they express an opposition, seldom see much need to know which they are. This despite the fact that it may be one of the most fundamental things about them and that little else about them will have as much to do with who they become—to say nothing of their happiness.

The problem is at least as much misunderstanding as ignorance. There are shy extraverts and ambitious introverts. More than in almost any other area of personality psychology you can think of, things are not always what they appear.

It also doesn’t enhance understanding that there are degrees of each; that is, you can be an extravert with introvert characteristics, and vice versa. And—irony of ironies in out digital age—strict binaries, e.g., male and female, are increasingly considered suspect when they are not outright scorned.

It further doesn’t help that in basic ways, extraverts and introverts don’t “get” each other. They may in fact be attracted to each other, in that “opposites attract” way. But without understanding which you are and which the other is—whether the other is your partner, your boss, or your examiner for the driving test at the DMV—you’re more vulnerable to what could gently be called failure to communicate.

The world stumbled along before psychologist C.G. Jung brought the words, which were already long in use, into the prominence they now have in our understanding of personality fundamentals and differences. As surely, it will continue to stumble along.

The following is presented in the interest of helping you stumble less, succeed more, and be more sure of yourself, and know what you can change and what you can’t. There are so many ways to verbalize the difference, you just have to pick one. For the purpose of this very brief discussion, your “-version” is your compass, and which way its arrow points.

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The Extravert - "Speak-Think-Speak"

The needle on the extravert’s compass points out. Extraverts get their information, their bearings—their orientation—from the world outside themselves, even if sometimes that “outside” seems only one degree beyond the skin.

The extravert’s primary and motive interest is in the external world and usually, fundamentally, the people in it. That’s also where extraverts get their input, which often is as basic as what other people think about them and what, if anything, that means they should do—in broad terms, whether to plow ahead or correct course.

It’s not just that extraverts are more comfortable “out in the world,” it’s that that’s where they get their oxygen, their fuel, the fuel they need to be effective. If the word is not taken too broadly, it can be said that extraverts are “outgoing.”

They tend to like, rather than endure, social situations, and they’re eager to have contact with others, even people as yet unknown to them. They tend to be swift judges of character, which is an asset when their experience is broad enough to make them knowing judges of character as well. They go out to meet, and sometimes even create, challenges rather than deal with the challenges that come their way.

To think of it in terms of the workplace—where the workplace is populated by others, which could be from thousands to just one other person—the extravert’s idea of a good way to end the day is to go out for drinks (or such) with the gang. For extraverts, socializing is a way to calm down.

The psychic and social tendency of extraverts can be to think 'out loud' - which is why the social process of extraverts is sometimes described in this way, as "Speak-Think-Speak." Extraverts are incredibly generous with what's in their minds and hearts. But in the workplace and in personal relationships it can sometimes confuse Introverts - because it isn't always clear when an extravert has come to a decison about something.

Common misconceptions are:

  • “Everyone loves an extravert.” No, the expression is actually Everyone loves a clown, which is not true either. Such as he has an identifiable psychology, the U.S. President is an extravert, and there’s polling evidence that not everyone loves him.
  • “Extraverts are ‘people’ people.” Well, when they are, they are. But sorry, Barbra, people who need people are not always the luckiest people in the world. Just take away the people they need and see how disoriented they feel.

A problem for both introverts and extraverts—but that tends to cause more evident suffering in extraverts—is the assumption that everyone around them is more or less like them. For the extravert, this can read like: “Facts are facts; what’s there to discuss?” “The rules apply to everyone; I’ll be the one policing them.” “Let’s all get along; wouldn’t that be simpler?” In sum: the pendular swing between “You guys mean the world to me” and “What’s with you guys?”

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The Introvert - "Think-Speak-Think"

The needle on the compass points in. For introverts, the measure of the outside world is how they respond to it—not always or necessarily how it makes them feel, but how the “facts” “out there” confirm or dispute the context, which is on the inside. What motivates introverts is the drive to be in—or move to—a world that is consonant with their inner harmony.

The introvert’s idea of the perfect end to the work day is getting away from it all and back into a safer, interior world. Introverts can start that transition the minute they exit the known crowd; that is, the introvert can get back to that all-important inner world on a crowded commuter train. And if there’s a family waiting for them at the other side of the train stop, you can be sure that’s what they’ll do.

Whereas the extravert may also commute using ear-buds in, they’re likely getting information or engaging in some other alternative source of socialization, say listening to news or sports or catching up on the music that’s popular now. The introvert may be "wearing" ear-buds just to make people think they’re listening to something—that, fundamentally, they're not to be interfered with.

The psychic and social tendency of introverts may be to decide in silence, before speaking out loud - which is why the social process of introverts is sometimes described in this way, as "Think-Speak-Think." Introverts may be relied upon because, when they finally state their opinion, it may have been thought about beforehand, for some time and the facts and context have been considered. But in the workplace and in personal relationships it can sometimes confuse Extraverts - because it isn't always clear why an introvert is being silent and sometimes it can feel like you're expected to read their minds, to know what they're thinking.

Common misconceptions are:

  • Introverts are anti-social. In fact, introverts may have intense personal friendships that they find as necessary to feed their inner selves as extraverts are to have companionship, or solicit or get validation. Introverts are their own best friends.
  • Introverts are loners by choice—or, worse, that no one else will have them. To use present-day parlance, introverts may be as “all about” their friends as their extravert counterparts are. But they’re interested in their friends for who those friends are “inside,” and their sustenance is in finding friends who are congruent with their own values. That could as easily be because the friends are different and help balance them—help them see what they cannot from inside the windshield—as because they are “the same.”
  • Introverts only think about themselves and are shy and retiring. Cautious, maybe, discerning as rule, but introverts can have strong ambitions too. But the ambition has to be to be the truest to self and personal sense of mission.

So why the confusion?

The current and previous U.S. Presidents are perfect cases in point. Everyone he deems important is the current President’s friend, at least until he’s suddenly never heard of them. Because he’s the greatest, so are they, or they better be.

To a degree many faulted—called being “superior”—his predecessor was highly selective with the people he surrounded himself with, put effort into keeping his relationships with them on an even keel, and thought that the perfect end to a hard day in the Oval Office was sitting down with a good book.

But both got to be President of the United States by thumping the competition and making other people—throngs of other people—feel important. But in execution, they were polar opposites.

Which is better?

That’s the common question, and the worst one. Until people are clear about which they are and have integrated it into how they deal with the world, extraverts and introverts are sure to think, feel, and act in some degree of judgment about each other. The judgment is, specifically, superiority. It’s unwarranted, but the problem is that it will have to do until the real thing comes along.

In short, you can be an introvert and also be the boss—just as you can be an extravert and keep the boss informed and supported and find your value there. Also, you can be either extravert or introvert and adapt, so that your relations with the world around you are less bumpy and more mutually beneficial.

But, equally, in fundamental ways you can’t change from one to the other. Disputes rage as to whether this fundamental component of character is the result of “nature” or “nurture,” but like most such disputes, they end in a draw, with no one truly satisfied with the results. In practical terms, you pretty much are which you are for life.

What matters is looking beneath appearances to learn which you really—or mostly, or fundamentally—are, and what that means for making the transformation that will result in finding your way into a world where you fit. Given that the alternatives are the monk’s cave and the dictator’s platform, it’s worth learning the basics of where you’re starting on the road to what will be—for you, individually—fulfillment.

For the non-specialist reader: We understand that "extrovert" is the common, accepted spelling these days, except in psychology, where it is extravert, with an "a." There's an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that when Jung's wife was asked why he insisted on using extravert in his writings, she responded that he said "Exrovert is just bad Latin."


C.G. Jung, Psychological Types