When I started a new job at a newspaper in the late 1990s, I noticed that one of my editors had four seemingly random letters taped above her computer monitor. “That’s my type,” she explained, and said that I’d soon have my own. Sure enough, after a few weeks human resources herded all the new employees into a conference room and made us fill out a Myers-Briggs personality test. My results showed that I was an almost off-the-scale introvert, which shocked a lot of my colleagues.
Because being a reporter required me to interact with people all day long, and because I had taught myself to be outspoken and gregarious in order to do my job, they assumed that I was an extrovert. But the “I” test result didn't surprise me at all. I knew that big crowds could make me uncomfortable, that a day of constant interaction with sources and editors would make me crave time alone, that it was easy for me to crawl into my own head and shut out the rest of the world.
But being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t like people.
That’s why I disagree with John Heilemann, author of the 2008 campaign book Game Change (whose HBO adaptation just won an Emmy for best miniseries or TV movie). In a recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview, he said that Obama was unusual because, unlike many other successful politicians (Clinton, ahem), our current president doesn’t like people. “He’s not an extrovert,” Heilemann said. “He’s an introvert.”
Clearly, Heilemann is not one of us, because he doesn’t seem to understand what makes me and my fellow introverts tick. But it’s a common misconception. Introverts actually make up a significant portion of the population, probably a quarter to a half, but you'd never know it (we're quieter, after all, and it’s true that we're often driven to pretend to be extroverts in order to fit in). Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, first popularized the idea that the world was divided into introverts and extroverts in the 1920s. He defined extroverts as people who are energized by interacting with others. Introverts, on the other hand, are drained by conversation and crowds, hence the need for occasional time alone to recharge.
Jonathan Raunch’s 2003 essay “Caring for Your Introvert” in the Atlantic served as a sort of manifesto for those introverts who feel misunderstood or mistreated by the dominant side of our great cultural rift. He dismisses the common misconception that introverts are just shy (or in harsher interpretations, misanthropic). But it’s true that introverts can find other people tiring, he admits, laying out his own personal formula for social interaction: Raunch needs roughly two hours alone for every hour he spends socializing with others. The introvert’s motto, he suggests, should be, “I’m OK, you’re OK—in small doses.”
Still, psychology can’t seem to completely break away from the idea that there’s something not OK about introverts. The World Health Organization classifies “introverted personality” as a potential health problem, and last year, as recounted in Psychology Today, the American Psychiatric Association considered a proposal, later dropped, for listing introversion as a contributing factor to some personality disorders. (Obama conspiracy theorists would have loved that one: Not only is our president a Kenyan, Muslim, anti-colonialist, terrorist-sympathizer—he’s nuts!) There have even been suggestions that introversion could belong on the autism spectrum, somewhere beyond Asperger’s syndrome.
What is it about introverts that makes people think we’re in some way damaged?