Ask most people in North America, and they can tell you whether they are an introvert or an extrovert. The terms are by far the best-known pieces of psychological jargon today, far more familiar than even the Oedipal Complex, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, I often suspect that accepting either is about as meaningful as knowing whether you are a Taurus or a Capricorn.
Few others share my misgivings. If you enjoy people and being the center of attention, you consider yourself an extrovert and a leader. By contrast, if you prefer your own company and pursuits, you are an introvert, an intellectual and perhaps a power behind the scene. Either way, you pity the other type. You dismiss introverts as weak and potential high school serial killers if you identify as an extrovert, and extroverts as shallow and oblivious if you identify as an introvert.
The justification for such a firm distinction is always that these terms were devised by Carl Jung, one of the great pioneers of psychology. However, citing Jung on matters of psychology is like citing Marx about communism; few people have actually read much of his work aside from a few quotes received fourth or fifth hand.
I have some sympathy for those who avoid reading Jung. I read about three-quarters of his collected works while researching my thesis, and even in English translation, his syntax remains Germanic. More importantly, Jung had a wide ranging mind, and anything he says on a given subject represents only his thoughts as he wrote. Since Jung rarely seems to have fully made up his mind about anything, that means that whatever he wrote in one place usually needs to be compared with corrections, revisions, and even contradictions elsewhere.
The mistake that most people make about extroversion and introversion is to conclude that, because Jung sometimes as those terms refer to people – or at least personality types – in other places he seems to use them to describe behavior or tendencies.
This is a subtle but important difference in emphasis. If you apply these terms to people, then you imply an either-or distinction. Just as a person either is or is not 180 centimeters high, so a person either is or is not an introvert or an extrovert. If questioned, some might grudgingly admit that someone who is a little of both might exist, but, in practice, such exceptions tend to be overlooked by most people using the terms.
Admittedly, every now and then, you encounter someone who calls themselves an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, such these people are a minority. The majority firmly choose sides and never deviate.
By contrast, if you talk in terms of extrovert or introvert behavior, then you open the possibility that people are a mixture of both. A minority of people at opposite ends of the bell curve might be fairly defined as almost entirely introvert or extrovert, but the majority will fall somewhere between the two extremes.
This perspective seems far more descriptive of people than insisting on one label or the other in all cases. I know that in my own case, I can sometimes be unashamedly extrovert, being the first to volunteer an opinion or address a group of people. At other times, if I am distracted by an article forming in my mind, or I am moody or with people I dislike, I would be judged an introvert. I need solitude for writing, but, once I am finished for the day, I want people around me just as much.
Nor, despite their varying scores on Meyers Briggs tests or other psychological horoscopes, do I think that most people are that much different. The most that tests can do is show a person’s tendency at the time they took the test. To get an accurate picture of a person’s range of behavior, I suspect that they would have to be tested repeated over a long period of time – probably at least a month.
Of course, that sort of intensive testing is rarely done. It is easier to label a person introvert or extrovert, based on a single moment or even subjective impressions. But the price we pay for such easy assignments of categories is a view of ourselves and others that is falsified by over-simplification.