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The Vocabulary of the Parts of Personality

Where accuracy plays a part

In her 2003 bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss discussed the importance of using correct punctuation when writing. She sometimes reacted to errors in punctuation with amused and bewildered disbelief, as when she encountered the movie poster for Two Weeks Notice, which she first saw on a London bus:

“I remember, at the start of the Two Weeks Notice publicity campaign in the spring of 2003, emerging cheerfully from the Victoria Station (was I whistling?) and stopping dead in my tracks with my fingers in my mouth. Where was the apostrophe? Surely there should be an apostrophe on that bus? If it were ‘one month’s notice” there would be an apostrophe (I reasoned); yes, and if it were “one week’s notice” there would be an apostrophe. Therefore “two weeks’ notice” requires an apostrophe! Buses that I should have caught (the 73; two 38s) sailed off up Buckingham Palace Road while I communed thus at length with my inner stickler, unable to move or, indeed, regain any sense of perspective.”

Truss celebrates that she is a stickler for punctuation—and the rest of her book is full of helpful explanations of how punctuation works, why we should love it, and memorable failures in meaning. One failure of punctuation that made the rounds on the internet was a headline from the pet-lovers’ magazine Tails about a well-known chef: “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog”—except there were no commas. It was too good to be true: The commas were photoshopped out. Then, there was a medical questionnaire that was also missing a comma. It asked if the reason for a patient’s visit included “unable to eat diarrhea.”

One the reasons Truss’ book was so successful is that many of us are keen to uphold rules in one or another area of our life; if not punctuation, then something else, and so we sympathize.

I’m a stickler when it comes to describing aspects of personality. Though I try not to make a fuss about it, it’s important to me that we describe one another’s psychological qualities accurately when we talk about people. I believe we all possess a natural intelligence for understanding personality (I call it personal intelligence). Employing this intelligence well involves speaking thoughtfully about one another.

I had a moment of stupefaction myself when I heard an acquaintance refer to a sweet but quiet person we both knew, as “antisocial.” I asked, “Did you, by chance, mean that she is introverted or shy?” Mental health professionals use “antisocial” to refer to individuals who act against other’s interests—exploiting them, disregarding their rights, potentially endangering them. A good percentage of the prison population is antisocial, but not, so far as I knew, our mutual acquaintance.

Unlike people with antisocial symptoms, introverts respect others every bit as much as extraverted people, with whom they are often contrasted. But, whereas people with high levels of extraversion prefer high levels of social activity and enjoy being around many people, people who are introverted prefer to have time alone and, when they do socialize, they prefer to do so with one or two people they know well. The vast majority of introverts respect and care about other people—they just may not want their company all the time.

A third quality, shyness, is different again. Introverts avoid large social gatherings because they are (relatively) unmotivated to socialize, yet most introverts can socialize if it’s necessary. Shy people, by comparison, spend time alone, but are more often attracted by the company of others; their social discomfort makes it hard for them to join in.

People who are shy are prone to feeling anxiety when they interact with people. They worry about saying something dumb or appearing awkward. They endorse test items such as “I am often uncomfortable at parties and other social gatherings,” and strongly endorse statements like, “I have doubts about my social competence” (Introverts, by comparison, go only so far as to say that they “prefer to spend time alone”).

Researchers Delroy Paulhus and Paul Trapnell of the University of British Columbia found that in a social gathering with other people, both introverts and shy people tended to remain silent initially. Over time, they began to talk, but there were differences. As they spoke, shy people exhibited characteristics such as difficulty making eye contact and fidgeting; introverts were less likely to exhibit such anxious behavior.

The difference between introversion and shyness can be subtle indeed, but an observer who is sensitive to the distinction can better understand and recognize whether a person who chooses to be alone is comfortable being so or anxious about interacting with others.

A person who understands the difference between introversion and shyness will recognize that when engaging an introverted person in conversation, she may accomplish little if the individual’s desire is to be alone. By comparison, she may have a lot to gain by allowing a shy person time to warm up, expressing acceptance of him and searching for a common interest as a topic of conversation.

When we accurately label personality’s parts—distinguishing between introversion and shyness, for example—we are using our personal intelligence; that is, we are applying our capacity to reason about personality and personal information. Labeling a person’s mental quality accurately can guide our behavior with them by suggesting ways to behave that will help us relate to one another (to leave the introvert alone; to wait for the shy person to warm up). Being better able to use the language of personality allows us to better “read” the people around us.


“I remember, at the start of the Two Weeks Notice publicity campaign…” from p. 3 of Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York: Gotham Books.

Paulhus, D. L. & Trapnell, P. D. (1998). Typological measures of shyness: Additive, interactive, and categorical. Journal of Research in Personality, 32, 183-201.

Briggs, S. R. (1988). Shyness: Introversion or neuroticism? Journal of Research in Personality, 22, 290-307.

The test items, “I am often uncomfortable…” and “When conversing,” and “I have no doubts,” are from Table 1 of Briggs, 1988) (see reference above).

Some suggestions for talking to introverts and shy people were drawn from several websites, notably,

Copyright © 2014 by John D. Mayer

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