THE CLASH OF PERSONALITIES
Extroverts and introverts together give groups balance and harmony. Why then does the western world increasingly favour one type over the other?
In today’s debate about identity and the many forms it may take, little attention is given to personality, yet it shapes how we relate to the world as assuredly as any other. Many people have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test and when asked to do so a second time, tend to refuse on the basis that they know who they are. While this may be true, it is noticeable how little attention is given to the poles of introversion and extroversion when it comes to thinking through social issues. The news, then, that Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (Penguin 2012) has been found on desks in Downing Street is reassuring.
The problem with a study like Cain’s is that extroverts instantly veer away from its findings because they suspect it won’t do much for their self-esteem, while introverts cling to it like limpets because it bolsters theirs in a world which favours extroverts. While encouraging introverts unashamedly to celebrate who they are, Quiet rightly appreciates the balance and harmony obtained where both are represented in a group. Introverts should value extroverts for their tireless ability to initiate and sustain conversation; extroverts should value introverts for being willing to listen more carefully than they sometimes do in return (oops, category bias slip).
Cain summarises the differences helpfully:
Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party and laugh generously at your jokes. They tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pyjamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.
If you didn’t know your personality type before, you may have a good idea after reading the above.
Susan Cain’s specific problem is helping introverts cope in a culture which is wildly extrovert (more than 70% of Americans are so). The situation may be different in Britain, but there is a growing tendency to value loud and colourful personalities at the expense of quieter ones. The emergence of the modern world set this trend in motion. When people become mobile and coalesce in urban settings, they know little about most of the people they meet from day to day and so immediate impressions count more than in a smaller setting where people know who you are and what you are like. In this context, the ability to ‘sell’ yourself becomes a prerequisite of success.
Having a sensitivity to issues of faith which probably stems from being the grand-daughter of a rabbi, Cain looks at the extrovert ideal found in Rick Warren’s Saddleback church through the eyes of an introverted evangelical minister who admires the energy with which mission is pursued but finds himself ill at ease there in worship and fellowship. The interplay between ecclesiology and personality is rarely considered, but probably has a large impact on where people worship and whether they are comfortable with it or not. Mercifully few churches follow the advice of one senior American minister who says, when choosing a minister to lead the church, ‘if the first letter isn’t an ‘E’ for extrovert, think twice…I’m sure our Lord was an extrovert’. Hmmm.
Flourishing Christian communities, like society, benefit from having a good mix of both kinds. They would also do well to observe two rules. The first is to respect people for the personality they have, rather than trying to make them something else. If we believe God has made us as we are and accepts us as such, we should confer the same dignity on one another. Both introverts and extroverts have great depths they can offer to their churches, but they will be inhibited if the subtle message is that they can’t because they are too loud or too quiet. A broader understanding of what these personality types mean would also foster relationships.
The second requirement is the more taxing. There are many times when both personality types have to act out of character for the benefit of others. To be stretched this way may be a function of costly discipleship. The introvert may need to lead or liven up others, to prevent introspection and build momentum; the extrovert may need to listen to others to meet a personal need or resolve a conflict, to cite a few examples of many. Like an elastic band, we may resort to our natural state at the first opportunity, but to be stretched this way for a time is to show we are thinking of other people’s needs before our own, which is the essence of Christian living.
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