Caring for your extravert

As an introvert, I really appreciate The Atlantic’s Caring for Your Introvert.  However some statements make me a bit uneasy.  Like this one:

 Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways.

I don’t think that’s true at all.  I think that introverts misunderstand extraverts as much as extraverts misunderstand them.  As Jung said (quoting from Psychological Types):

Just as the introvert who tries to get hold of the nature of extravert invariably goes wide off the mark, so the extravert who tries to understand the other’s inner life from the standpoint of externality is equally at sea.

You see, extraverts have difficulty understanding introverts because they’re always thinking of them in extraverted terms.  But it goes both ways.  Introverts are constantly analyzing extraverts in introverted terms.

So how do extraverts work? In her book Personality Type: an Owner’s Manual, Lenore Thomson (an introvert) tells a story about how she used to conduct lectures on type. She’d give out a personality test, then pass around type descriptions and invite the students to comment. The introverts in the class would get excited and ask a lot of questions. The extraverts wouldn’t say anything at all. However, all of the extraverts would approach her after class to ask if the type description seemed accurate.

The introverts in the room were happy to take a test, read a description, and come to a conclusion. The extraverts needed an external point of reference to form their conclusions. This is what you constantly see among extraverts. In fact (since the majority of these classes are usually introverted), if she gave the same test again two or three classes later, the extraverts would score evenly between being introverts and extraverts.

This is why extraverts can get so cranky with introverts who don’t talk much. They don’t give the extravert a point of reference to work from.

Another characteristic of extraverts is that they’re constantly aiming for things they see as being bigger than the Individual. For programmers, we can see this by looking at Paul Graham’s essay on great hackers, albeit from a very introverted standpoint:

Business types prefer the most popular languages because they view languages as standards. They don’t want to bet the company on Betamax.

Graham was probably referring to extraverts when he talked about “business types”. After all, I know plenty of geeks who have the same attitude. Here’s the point that Graham is trying to make: great hackers like good languages. Therefore businesses should use good languages to attract great hackers. Extraverts see things a bit differently though. They understand that programmers won’t always want to use the most popular language. And it isn’t that that isn’t important to them. It’s just that they’re putting the needs of the greater organization ahead of the needs of its individual workers.

Introverts might see this behavior as being controlling, and indeed that might even be the case if the extravert sees their behavior as undermining the greater good. But the reality of the situation is that the extravert is putting both their own and the introvert’s needs behind that of the larger whole.

In this case, the extravert would do well to listen to Graham (Graham could also learn something from the extravert, but this is about understanding extraversion). An organization can’t meet it’s goals if it doesn’t have the support of the individuals that work for it. At the same time, one has to admire the extraverted attitude. I’ve seen extraverted hackers put aside their personal desires to choose tools that benefit the organization more than themselves, even if they strongly hate that tool.

One thing that should be noted here: I speak in terms of absolutes (“extraverts do this”, “introverts do that”), but this is bit of an oversimplification. Everyone has an introverted and extraverted side to them, and you might occasionally see introverted behavior from extraverts. Generally speaking, one side is dominant, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t learn to tap into their other side.

Here are a few things an introvert might do to better get along with an extravert:

  1. Phrase things in terms of what the benefit is to the greater organization if possible.
  2. Be assertive. It’s good to learn to get along with extraverts, but do so in such a way that you can still be true to yourself.
  3. Remember, if an extravert is constantly interrupting you to get your thoughts, it means they respect your opinion. Be polite and try to find a way to help them in such a way that they don’t have to interrupt you.