This morning I had a “watershed” article from The Atlantic circa 2003 paraded in front of me like it was today’s breaking news. The offending scrap from yesteryear, Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for your introvert: the habits and needs of a little-understood group”, caused me to set off very public “dislike” flares that could be seen from the South Pole. I could be heard shouting, “technologies of the self be damned”! It was some time before I became aware that I was actually involved in an impromptu period-piece. All this verbose and emotive carry-on led, however, to the formulation of a timely question for all those currently—yes, today—recycling its message with the (ironic) passion of a human rights campaign: are the “introvert” and the “extrovert” as personality types now, eight years on, not best viewed as artefacts of the technostalgia archive?
The article pleaded the case of the “introvert”, saying that such individuals required less discrimination, more care, and more prominence in the face of a (North American? European? international? post-colonial?) socio-culturally reinforced extroversion onslaught in which, by default, being a “people person” means everything.
Apparently, withdrawn and often socially inept people not officially identified by the DSM-IV are to be considered people too. They are to be supported in their desire not to engage in social banter or small talk, tolerated for their odd, obstructive, and off-putting moods, and furthermore, rewarded for such behaviour in a world needlessly dominated by “extroverts” who continually persecute, victimize, and even vilify the “introverts”.
There is perhaps nothing worse for proaction, teamwork, getting stuff done, and other essential components still hanging around in the 21st century from the centuries and decades gone by than an “introvert” in a leadership or otherwise authoritative position. It simply doesn’t work. Epigenetics doesn’t much like the whole idea either.
The author’s charge that “extroverts are overrepresented in politics” and other areas of public life requiring “people skills” and leadership—including business—is like saying that psychopaths are overrepresented among serial killers or that people with high adrenaline and dopamine thresholds are overrepresented in extreme sports. Boo freakin’ hoo, 2003.
In a traditional mud-wrestling match between an introvert and an extrovert I will always choose the the extrovert. Needless to say, I am going to support my own team. Even more so since we are easily distracted, emotionally fatuous and flabby fools who have numerous chinks in the armour that introverts are constantly buggering up one way or another, mostly through our proclivity to crack a smile and talk. A lot.
So much for the old-school advantages.
With the adaptive processes of the human-computer interface in full embryonic swing, the rules of engagement have changed. Emotions are not what they once were. People are not what they once were. Personalities are all over the place. Social barriers and hoops are not what they used to be.
Inject social media into the skin, and it is most emphatically not business as usual for the interpersonal life between introvert and extrovert. In fact, it is all out war, in which full-scale electro-mediatization has changed everything.
The result is a socio-cultural hyper-awareness of humanity’s last true frontier: the emotional and personal nexus. Egad!
We are daily forced into collision with one another, continually challenging and challenged by Sartre's adage that “hell is other people”. Whether or not that is true, we have been forcibly pushed out of the trenches, rudely unaware and unprepared to run across this new, continually morphing, mysterious no-man’s-land where introvert and extrovert have almost ceased to exist as relevant categories. Both are simultaneously levelled and fuelled by the individual’s adoption and adaptation of sociology and marketing. All this in order to cobble together a reasonable rampart or bunker to protect and house his or her rapidly multiplying army of personas while at the same time establishing a dedicated brand following and culture under the flagship logo. The mini-victories of the person that emerge from these campaigns have real-world impact on the professional and personal success of the individual. And fresher troops are always just up ahead.
Effective leadership of these internal and external troops has never been more important. It is what will win the “personality” war for you, whether you are a classically and monolithically defined “introvert” or “extrovert”. The convalescence period is about nil for the wounded on either side.
Of course, understanding is half the battle, particularly with respect to the character profile of the people (or armies, or cells) you come across. Only through being aware can you possibly care.
The other half of the battle flows from the effects of the first: self-protection and proofing against said character profiles and the ways in which they can lead to your defeat. Because just like the funny instructions you get while riding in the gut of a metal bird, only by putting on your own mask can you be of any use to your fellows … while plummeting likewise to your own death.
Leading into the Mayan apocalyptic year of 2012, I suggest that retreating to foreign corners either of hyper-sensitivity or determined ignorance of the character profiles of others (or yourself) under the tattered banners of old and destabilized categories is not helpful nor an option. Acknowledge, smile, shake hands, and carry on. The mothership of human personality as heretofore known is going down, and there’s more room on the life-raft than you think!
Jen Reid is an academic and writer living globally.