Introvert vs. Extrovert — Do We Really Understand the Difference?

And do opposites attract, or are we birds of a feather?

flock of birds at sunset

On the subject of introversion vs. extroversion the answer to that question is some of both.

Introvert/extrovert – We assume we know the meaning of these words. Extroverts are outgoing and talkative. Introverts are quiet and shy. Right?

Well, yes and no.

Extroversion–introversion is one of the continuum in the Big Five Trait theory. This is a well-researched theory regarding how our personalities tend to be organized. There are five major continuum of traits in this theory, with quite a few other traits within each of these categories.

In addition to Extroversion–introversion, these continuum are:
Agreeableness (how ruthless vs. softhearted you are)
Conscientiousness (how reliable you are)
Neuroticism (how emotionally stable you are)
Openness to New Experiences (how adventurous you are)

Now with regard to most of these trait continuum, the phrase, “birds of a feather flock together” applies. We tend to be attracted to people similar to ourselves. But there are two exceptions.

One is the neuroticism/emotional stability continuum. Those folks like me who are more intense (more high maintenance, some–like my husband–might say) are usually attracted to people who are easy-going. But this is another whole post. So let’s get back to extroversion-introversion, which is the other continuum where opposites attract.

drawing of a gril talking to a silent boy

(‘Talk’ by Mr. Seafall, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia)

On the surface, I present as an extreme extrovert. I’m very talkative. I start conversations with strangers on a regular basis. (I draw the line at inanimate objects, though I do talk to animals, and the occasional plant. 😉 )

Roughly two-thirds of my friends, including my husband, are introverts. The other third are very close to the cusp between the two versions of this trait (sometimes called ambiversion, as in ambidextrous when it comes to these traits).

Most of my friends are introverts because their personalities complement my own. Introverts make a good audience for the extrovert. As one of my friends put it: “I like it that you talk so much. That way I don’t have to think of much to say.”

Other than relieving one of the obligation to make conversation, I can only speculate about our appeal from the introverts’ point of view. My guess is they find us extroverts entertaining.

But why are so many of my friends near the cusp–neither strongly extroverted nor blatantly introverted? Ah, this brings us back to the true meaning of extroversion–introversion. It is a lot more complicated than we tend to think.

You see, I am actually very close to being an ambivert myself. Despite my obvious extroverted traits, I score on the introverted side on one very important but little understood aspect of this continuum–how one experiences social stimulation.

diagram of the extroversion--introversion continuum

(by RCraig09 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Extroverts draw energy from interacting with others; introverts are drained by such interactions and need to be away from people for awhile to recuperate. Regarding this crucial trait, I am an introvert. I crave large quantities of alone time. My mother was the same way. She referred to herself as an introvert who operated as an extrovert.

Now this doesn’t mean introverts dislike being around other people. They have social and emotional needs just like extroverts. But after awhile, they need to be alone.

And while we’re on the subject, let me point out another misconception about introverts. They aren’t all shy, nor do they necessarily have difficulty making friends. They are somewhat quieter, less quick to speak up, but they may very well be quite talkative amongst friends (my husband certainly is!)

And I know several introverts who are better at making friends than I am, even though I may appear more “friendly” on the surface. I’m quick to start a conversation with just about anyone, but I’m actually slow to make a friend.

Fortunately my cofounder of misterio press, Shannon Esposito, is one of those introverts who makes friends easily. We met at a writers’ conference. I initiated the conversation but she was the one who opened the door to friendship and invited me in with a flourish.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Big Five Trait continuum are somewhat independent of each other. Shannon is quite adventurous. As bold as I am at trying new things, she is always right there with me. Indeed she’s often leading the way. This is not a trait we usually associate with reserved introverts. And it shouldn’t be, because it’s on a completely different continuum–Openness to New Experiences. An introvert can be adventurous; an extrovert can love predictable routine (I know a couple of them).

I guess the moral of all this is to not be too quick to label someone as introverted or extroverted, and don’t be too surprised if most of your friends are from the other side of the continuum. Unless you’re a true ambivert, in which case you will probably “flock together” with other ambiverts.

How about you? Do you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert? Are you drained or energized by being around others?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    Shannon Esposito
    April 15, 2014 at 9:04 am

    Fascinating subject and post, Kass. You’re correct, most of my friends are extroverts, including my husband. I think what I get out of them is being forced to be social. If I was married to an introvert we would probably never leave the house. Being around extroverts allows me to have those adventures and then go back to my cave. I think the whole issue with not liking/needing a stimulating environment is because we’re wired to take everything in so everything is already stimulating enough. I notice if I’m in a group of people, I can’t filter out the conversations around me to focus on one at a time. Background noise is overwhelming, as is the emotions and energy of the people around me. I feel, see, and hear it all. It gets exhausting. My husband on the other hand, needs to push the limits of adrenalin, emotion, etc. to feel anything. I think our kids have ended up with a good combination of us, being on the cusp of both, as you said.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 15, 2014 at 7:35 pm

      Interesting, Shannon. I never thought about the connection between introversion–extroversion and sensitivity to stimulation in quite that way. It was explained to me years ago as a matter of emotional energy, whether we draw it from or lose it in social settings. But then the man explaining it was an extrovert. Thanks for the input from an introvert’s perspective.

      And yes, your boys do seem to be a blend, more on the cusp. So is my son, although he leans a little toward introvert.

  • Reply
    Linda Maye Adams
    April 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    I’m an introvert. I’m definitely drained by being around people. At science fiction conventions, I periodically have to take a break and go up to my room get away from all the people. When I was in the military, the other soldiers found it strange that I didn’t want to hang out with everyone. At one point during Desert Storm, I was exhausted all the time because I could not get away from the people!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 15, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      Hey, Linda, so glad to see you here!

      I know the military can be very difficult for introverts. The introverted son of a friend of mine was on duty 7 days a week in Iraq for several months (behind the lines; he’s an aircraft mechanic) and he ended up with PTSD (which he’d managed to avoid through 25 years in the Army and multiple combat deployments). His mom (a psychotherapist, like me) thinks it wasn’t the hard work that did it. It was not having enough down time to process the stress of the situation and just be by himself.

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    April 15, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Very interesting! What do you think of those ISFJ, etc, etc type of categories?

    I know I’m an introvert, and yet I’m outgoing and converse with folks easily. My parents were always teasing me about being “chatty Kathy.” (Can a first name be destiny? I wonder.) 😉

    I have friends all over the different ranges you’ve listed, except for agreeableness. Sorry, no way can I be close to somebody hard-hearted. How someone treats others is very important to me.

    Hubby and I are very similar, except he’s a bit more easy-going (okay, maybe a LOT more), and I’m a little more adventurous.

    Thanks for the cool insight, Kass!


    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 15, 2014 at 7:52 pm

      I have mixed emotions about the Myers-Briggs. I think the first three continuum make a lot of sense, but I’ve never quite grasped the judging–perceiving one. (Can you tell I’m an intuitive feeler; if I can’t grasp it emotionally then it doesn’t make sense.)

      Sounds like you are close to being an ambivert like me, but on the introverted side of the cusp. It’s a cool place to be. We can be more flexible. And I’m guessing if your hubs is a lot more easy-going that means you are more intense like me as well. Again, not a bad place to be, IMHO, but it is a little hard on our spouses. 😀

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    April 15, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Interesting topic, and good stuff to think about when we’re building our literary characters!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 15, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      Good point, Kirsten. I think you have intuitively done this with your protagonist, Riga, and her new husband. They are similar in a lot of ways but also good complements to each other in other areas. But it is good to be conscious of this, not just with romances but in terms of who our characters would like or dislike in general.

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    April 15, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    Have you already written about the other continuum or will you be? I found this really fascinating.

    I’m most definitely an introvert. I’ve been told I’m very approachable and people tend to open up to me. I enjoy spending time with people. But it’s intensely exhausting for me. I need large chunks of time alone in a day.

    I’ve been going through my closest friends in my mind, and a high percentage of them are extroverts. Interesting. My husband, however, isn’t. Part of what works so well in our relationship is that we’re both strongly introverted. We do hit on opposite ends of the “maintenance” continuum though. I’ve been described as “extremely low maintenance.” My husband lands closer to the high maintenance end.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 15, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      I haven’t written about the other continuum, Marcy, but I may do so if folks are interested. It’s a pretty cool theory overall, in my opinion.

      That’s interesting that you and your husband are both introverts. It probably works well for you partly because you are opposites in emotional intensity. I would imagine that keeps you from being bored with each other. lol

      Also I think two introverts can do well in a relationship better than two extroverts. We extroverts tend to dislike sharing the stage! 😉

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    April 16, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    I think you should write about the other end of the spectrum Kassandra since you’ve gotten our curiosity going. Hmm. I would have to say that I am somewhere in the middle. When I was younger and more energetic, I was an extravert. I loved being around people and it gave me such a high. I never tired of it. But now that I’m older, I’m tired girl. I cannot take overstimulation. So the pendulum has swung the other way. And I’m okay with it. And I think my husband is okay with it too because I have a feeling I drove him nuts when we were younger. lol. How funny that you wrote about birds of a feather. I just wrote a post with the same title. Although I won’t be posting this week. I am running a fever as I speak. Oh well. As always, I enjoyed your post. Great, useful information! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      Sorry you are under the weather, Karen! Hope you feel better soon. Looking forward to that post.

      I too have moved more toward the cusp through the years. I was an extreme extrovert in my youth and did not particularly like being alone. But as I came to like myself better, I enjoyed alone time and found I needed a certain amount of it to recuperate from social interactions.

      I guess it’s part of that mellowing with age thing. 🙂

  • Reply
    Shan Jeniah Burton
    April 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    My mother says that, even as a young girl, I could play by myself for long periods. At the same time, I’ve always liked people and wanted to understand them.

    I’m still a cusp girl. I will happily engage strangers in deep meaningful conversations, then part company without ever sharing names. The interaction is a sparkling jewel of a moment, with no long term emotional commitment tied to it.

    I, too, feel emotional energy very powerfully. I’ve learned to protect myself more in the last few years, avoiding people and situations that trigger me too strongly. As a girl, I could be found hiding out at some point in every family gathering – it just got to be too much, with all the angst no one acknowledged, but I could feel clearly.

    Like you, I need to grasp things intuitively for them to make sense to me (maybe why Twitter continues to bewilder me, but Facbook feels natural and right).

    I still need lots of time to be in my own head. Of course, as a homeschooling mom, I’m not so often alone; but both kids are also on the cusp (my son, like my husband, is more introverted; my daughter needs more in the way of social interaction and connection).

    Most of the time, our family moves in four intersecting orbits, like a dance where we draw near, touch, then move off on our own paths again.

    It works well for us, and allows me a certain amount of space (in my room, or my little study) without being unavailable to them.

    This was a very enlightening post!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Shan. And I love what you said about the conversations with strangers. They are indeed “sparkling jewels” and often make both parties’ day!

  • Reply
    Lynn Kelley
    April 28, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    This stuff is so darn interesting! I’m friendly and make friends easily, love to be with people, but it definitely drains me, so I knew I was an introvert just from reading Kristen Lamb’s blog about the subject and another blog post, too. But yours is the first one that brings in all the other aspects. Fascinating post, Kassandra!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      April 28, 2014 at 7:27 pm

      Hey Lynn, glad you found it interesting. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Reply
    May 26, 2014 at 2:12 am

    I learned a lot from this post. I didn’t know that there was ambiversion, I’ve always thought of myself as an introvert since childhood but as I get older I started to develop some traits of an extrovert and I thought that I might be switching to the other side. i still enjoy being alone and prefer small group of people though which is why I’m not fully convinced that I’m turning into an extrovert but now I’m thinking that I might actually be both as an ambivert. I really like the concept of ambiversion because it is a balance of both personalities that way a person can take advantage of the strength of both.

    Tavia Cruz

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 26, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Hi, Tavia. So glad you found our little blog!

      I had never heard that term either until I went looking for a visual aid to show that it is a continuum. I’m thinking that many folks, as they mature, move a little closer to the cusp. (Notice I didn’t say, as they age. Some people don’t mature; they just get older.) I know my husband and I are both more a balance between the two ends of the continuum than we used to be.

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