Why This Site Doesn't Use The Words Introvert And Extrovert

(Note that while this article is mainly about the terms 'introversion' and 'extroversion', many of the reasons below are also why I hardly ever use other vague, loaded terms like 'cool' or 'geek' in my writing.)

You'd think a site like this would have the words 'introvert' and 'extrovert' strewn all over the place, but with the odd exception I purposely try not to use them. It's mainly for practical reasons. It's not that I don't believe in the concepts of introversion and extroversion. I use the words in my day-to-day life. However, I've learned over the years that when it comes to communicating my ideas on a website that's read by all types of people that the terms are imprecise and can cause unintentional misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Years ago when I wrote my first articles I haphazardly used 'introvert' and 'extrovert' everywhere. Percentage-wise I've always gotten more positive reader emails than negative ones, but back then the proportion of angry, defensive messages was higher. That was partially because I was rightly being criticized for some older ideas that were a little off the mark. However, I also noticed the negative feedback went way down when I stopped using 'introvert' and 'extrovert'. I was still making the same points, but started being more precise about the traits I was referring to. For example, if I wanted to make a point about 'preferring quieter, small-scale get togethers over big, rowdy ones', I'd use that phrase, rather than using 'introvert' and hoping the reader got what I meant.

That's the general story. Here's some more detail about why I think the words are impractical to use when you're writing for a bigger audience:

No agreed-upon definitions

Everyone seems to mean something slightly different when they use the terms 'introvert' or 'extrovert'. I'm not just talking about regular people using them in their day-to-day lives either. Even different psychological theories or personality tests have their own definitions for the concept.

I'm tempted to write up a giant list of all the various traits that have been ascribed to introverts and extroverts by different sources, but I don't think I need to. Basically, the lack of a single definition means that using these terms can lead to misunderstandings. One person may use the word introvert to refer to one thing, while the recipient of the message may take a totally different, unintended meaning from it.

Basically, introversion and extroversion are used as quick labels to sum up a collection of sub-traits, and definitions vary on which ones are included. Like I said, on this site if I want to refer to a specific sub-trait, I'll talk about it separately and directly.

Too many sub-concepts crammed into one

Another definition-related problem is that whenever I'm reading a description of what introverts or extroverts are supposedly like, the write up always outlines a whole bunch of sub-traits, tendencies, and preferences they're claimed to have. They're all lumped together to create a type or profile.

I think people and their personalities are complicated. It's very likely that many people have some of those sub-traits and not others. Saying someone is an X, with the implicit assumption that they have all, or many, of X's sub-traits often isn't accurate. If I talk about each supposed sub-trait separately I avoid this issue. Of course, I do understand the value of having a single word that pulls together a bunch of different ideas, but in the case of introversion/extroversion at least I think it's gotten messy.

Just using the words can derail discussions

Since there's no standard definition of what an introvert or an extrovert is, just using the words can often sidetrack a conversation by starting a debate about what the terms supposedly really mean. I've seen this happen countless times online. There will be an article called something like "How to be more extroverted", or a forum post titled "How do I make friends as an introvert?" The author had certain definitions of 'introvert' and 'extrovert' in mind when they wrote it, even if they didn't formally sit down and consider what they were.

Wherever it is the piece is being discussed, it won't be long before someone posts something along the lines of, "Well this writer is saying introverts are X,Y,Z. That's not true and a common misconception. Introversion has nothing to do with having the traits X,Y,Z or not. Introversion means someone is E,F,G." Then someone else will disagree, or put up their own definition. Sometimes the whole thread will be dominated by the issue and talk of how annoying it is that no one seems to know the proper meaning of the words.

In all this the author's original point is lost. Regardless of what definition they were going on, they were referring to some sub-traits that extroversion or introversion is supposed to encompass. Instead of focusing on whether what they have to say about those sub-traits is valuable or not, the conversation becomes one about correct definitions.

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The terms tend to make people feel defensive

Say a writer's personal definition of 'introvert' is someone who's overly-reserved and shy. Not saying that's the correct definition (see above), but that's how this hypothetical person sees it. If they write an article called How To Be Less Introverted, it'll get a much stronger negative reaction than if it was titled How Be Less Overly-Reserved And Shy.

There will be a bigger reaction to the first article because many people tend to see introversion as an acceptable variation in personality, and not something they should have to change (a view I agree with). On the other hand, if you talk about more specific traits, like 'reservedness' or 'shyness' people may still disagree that they're something they should have to fix, but they'll tend to look at things on a case-by-case basis. It doesn't trigger that immediate response of, "Hey, don't tell me I have to change! I'm not listening to anything this person has to say!"

Like a previous point mentioned, another reason the words 'introvert' and 'extrovert' can make people feel defensive is that pieces of writing often are operating under a different definition than theirs. If a person reads something like, "As we all know, introverts are shy..." when they believe introversion has nothing to do with shyness, then they'll get irritated. Some self-described introverts are really vigilant about the term being used incorrectly because they see it as evidence that the world doesn't understand them.

While it was the need to write clearly and not have my ideas be misinterpreted that led me to stop using 'introvert' and 'extrovert', I also have a few more philosophical gripes with how the terms are often used and understood:

False dichotomy

Whatever they mean, introversion and extroversion are supposed to exist on a continuum. A small number of people are clear cut, strongly-expressed introverts or extroverts, but most of us are a mix and somewhere in the middle. This idea of a subtle scale seems to get a lot of lip service, but in practice people mainly talk as if someone is one or the other. That's way too simplified and leads to other problems.

Associated with an Us vs. Them mentality

Not every self-identified introvert is like this, but I've seen my share of it. Some people who consider themselves introverts see extroverted people as the enemy. Extroverts are supposedly loud and pushy and insensitive. They don't understand introverts or appreciate their strengths. They think their approach to socializing is the one true way and try to force everyone to act just like them.

It's not that I think there's no validity in those points, but overall I'm not a fan of this mindset. For one, it reinforces the false dichotomy. Most people are in the middle. It's oddly hypocritical too - "I'm mad at this group for stereotyping and misunderstanding me, so I'm going to paint them with simplistic stereotypes of my own!" It's also just too angry and adversarial for my tastes. I don't see outgoing people as this evil force that's out to get me.

They can be self-limiting labels

According to the reports of people who have done it, it is possible for someone who's on the introvert end of the scale to become much more extroverted. Maybe not everyone can do it, but at least some claim they have. Well, I think the idea of switching from one side of the scale to the other isn't totally accurate. It's more that people can add new traits, interaction styles, and behaviors to their repertoire, which they can then draw on depending on their circumstances. They still keep all their previous so-called introverted tendencies, though they might not express those traits to the same degree as before. This point isn't about saying whether it's right or not for someone to want to do this, or if they should feel they have to change. I'm just saying I think it's an option.

But some people believe that their current level of introversion or extroversion is set in stone. They'll say things like, "No, that's not possible. I'm an introvert. I'll never be able to do that", while referring to changes many other people have said they've made. This attitude may limit someone from growing in a way that would make their lives more full and enjoyable. Someone may like the option to switch into 'extrovert mode' when they feel it's useful (just as someone else might like to cultivate some more classically introverted traits).

Another belief that may come into play is that introverts shouldn't have to change because that would be selling out and letting the enemy extroverts win. Even if growing would make their lives richer, they may resist the idea because of Us vs. Them convictions.