Why America Needs Introverted Extroverts Now

A neglected personality type may hold the key to resolving our culture wars.

Posted Jun 27, 2020

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The pandemic has revealed many divisions, including mildly amusing memes about extraverts and introverts. Desperate memes from friends proclaim their status as avowed extraverts-We’re not okay, send help and phone calls, or introverts--Hold my beer, this is the moment we’ve been prepping for!

Since Carl Jung and the rise of the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, the binary archetype of the extravert and introvert has defined popular conceptions of ourselves for decades. And yet this simplistic introvert-extrovert divide is increasingly being questioned. 

Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World, confesses that even for an introvert “there is such a thing as too much social distancing.” Organizational psychologist Adam Grant too offers his personal and professional perspective that being an introvert or extrovert is about finding that sweet spot between stimulation and the solitude of sheltering in place.

Research during this pandemic both foil and confirm our expectations. Two studies examining hundreds of adults find that not only are most of us are feeling better socially during lockdown, and those extroverts screaming at us on facebook aren’t doing as bad as we, or they, may think. Yes, extroverts are still 30 percent more social during this than their introvert friends. But, the memes are right in one important respect: the gap between extroverts and introverts is definitely narrowing.   

Why might that be? Just maybe these “versions” are less a contrast and more a spectrum, if not a moving target, not unlike our sexuality. Like most folks, you’ve maybe never encountered the concept of ambiverts, those who walk between these seeming yins and yangs. The centrists and moderates of the personality set, they have been neglected and sidelined—even by psychology itself—because they don’t, at first blush, sound as interesting as the dynamic duo. 

As a culture, we tend to idolize extrovert-introvert pairs—Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—but we’re much less inclined to look at those who inhabit both. 

But we should. Not only are ambiverts 40 to 66 percentage of the population, accounting for more of us than their opposing peers, they possess the powerful antidote to our society’s current polarization, the quick tendency to see contradictory sides as a problem rather than an opportunity.

Adam Grant showed that ambiverts are the most successful salespeople—even more so than extroverts!—because they can see all sides. They deeply empathize with and meet the needs of the other while simultaneously not forgetting their own job and self-interest.  At a time in our country’s history when there is a quickness to take sides, we can remember the bridges ambiverts have offered. 

A deeply solitary, and often melancholic man, Abraham Lincoln thrived in debates, sharing stories with friends late into the night, and speaking words that still resonate in our collective consciousness.  He could draw on his own pain to meet the anguish of a divided nation. A well-developed ambivert, he could hold complexity and contradiction to stand firmly behind words America desperately needed:

“With malice towards none, and charity towards all…let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle.”

Oprah Winfrey too has helped America as a unifying ambivert.  She elevated the extroverted daily talk show to serve more than just entertainment and become a powerful vehicle for amplifying the voices of the voiceless. Her highly popular and influential book club, a classic introvert activity, and magazine speaks across generations about how to carry our pride and pain with great humanity.  And yet, in that quintessential extroverted way, she also knows how to bring an audience to their feet.    

Atticus Finch, the hero from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, represents another kind of unifying ambivert. Not only does Atticus represent and fight against the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson, he is also careful not to cast the others in his small town as deplorables. From the racist Ms. Dubose who is struggling with her own mortality to the wildly misunderstood and stigmatized Boo Radley, Atticus teaches his children to respect the complexity of humanity, warts and all. For him, it is a sin to kill mockingbirds because they represent the beautiful diversity we are all trying to embrace. In this way, he balances the simultaneously quiet and loud strength of the ambivert, the one so needed in our culture now.

If we can’t acknowledge the complexity and nuance of our introverted and extroverted selves-our ambiverts-- how can we do it for even more difficult and loaded issues? If the cultural framework for who we are psychologically doesn’t speak to this, doesn’t that make it harder for the Lincolns, Winfreys and Finches to show us the way again?

So instead of just checking on your extrovert and introvert friends, how about making more room for the ambiverts? We need them now more than ever.