‘Personality and pizza in 30 minutes or less?’ Moving beyond introvert-extrovert labels

People don’t typically walk around with labels on their chest stating who or what they are. But in our interactions with others, we often do exactly that. We slap labels on people and never let them take them off.

Like introvert or extrovert for example. I’ve heard these terms discussed from time to time, often with frustration or resignation. I haven’t personally come across anyone who loves these labels, who is thrilled to be classified in these ways. Yet we behave as if these concepts will be here for all time. I’ve never been a total convert.

Our culture is saturated with references to these personality types. We see articles on the latest interpretation of introverts and extroverts, some of which hint at the wish to be free from these limiting categories.

Increasingly, authors are tackling the topic. Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” really turbo-charged and widened the conversation. Cain is a writer, lecturer and former lawyer. She discusses the so-called “The Extrovert Ideal.” Here she explores the culture at Harvard Business School, which unabashedly churns out extroverts as a matter of course (literally).

When random students asked what she was doing on campus, she told them she’s doing research for her book. The response? “Good luck trying to find an introvert around here.” Another said, “This school is predicated on extroversion. Your grades and social status depend on it.” The book goes on to discuss the myth of charismatic leadership and much more.

It was Carl Jung, a buddy of Freud, who first defined the terms introversion and extroversion. That was many moons ago. The immensely popular Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator (MBTI) grew out of those ideas.

Brian Little’s fascinating book, “Me, Myself and Us: the Science of Personality and the Art of Wellbeing,” says the Myers Briggs lacks reliability. Little has taught at McGill, Oxford and Harvard and has been described as a cross between Robin Williams and Einstein.

In his view, MBTI workshops are a bit like mass horoscope readings. The results are quick and easy, which someone in one of his audiences likened to ordering pizza: “personality and pizza in 30 minutes or less.” Little presents other ways to understand personality, like his Big-Five traits.

In a 2016 Forbes article, Dr. Travis Bradberry, renowned author, speaker and expert on emotional intelligence says, “The introvert/extrovert dichotomy reflects a tired and outdated view of personality. Personality traits exist along a continuum, and the vast majority of us aren’t introverts or extroverts—we fall somewhere in the middle.” Thank you, Dr. Bradberry.

Enter the term “ambivert,” which refers to a person whose personality balances introvert and extrovert characteristics, and essentially opens the door to being no kind of ‘vert’.

Cain says, “Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles.” We celebrate diversity in a lot of areas, why not personality?

Labels serve a purpose but they also fail in many ways. They fail to nuance. They fail to identify complexities. I don’t ever need to do one of those temperament tests again, where I’m forced to choose between two polar options, neither of which fits who I am. I’ve found other helpful tools.

It’s time to move on from categories that squeeze people into limited polarities. Greater enlightenment involves dropping the labels, widening our understanding, letting people out of their boxes and welcoming a diversity of personality types.