The Introvert’s Dilemma in a Tech-Enabled World

Does the introvert-extrovert divide make sense in the digital age?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting take on the shifting divide between introverts and extroverts in modern society.

Author William Pannapacker, who’s an English professor at Michigan’s Hope College, contends introversion is nearly pathologized by a contemporary culture that celebrates powerful, charismatic personalities to the exclusion of quiet ponderers.

He describes taking the Myers-Briggs personality test with his students a few years ago. When Myers-Briggs’ famed four-letter type indicator revealed Pannapacker was the classes’ only official introvert, several students’ first reaction was to console him and argue with the test’s result.

“‘We are made to be social with each other’ was a refrain in the conversation,” he wrote.

Many of those students, Pannapacker suggests, were actually closet introverts -- especially some who never spoke in class -- but were ashamed to admit they’d rather stay home reading a book than socialize at a party.

Pannapacker worries the premium society puts on extroverts’ aptitudes, such as leading presentations and schmoozing, is pushing talented introverts out of promising careers -- especially in academia where people are first selected for the introvert’s skills of methodical and solitary research and then evaluated by the extrovert’s metrics of leading seminar discussions, presenting research to packed lecture halls and glad handing department chairs.

What’s most curious about Pannapacker’s take is its exclusion of technology, which has been a leading player in many discussions of contemporary introversion.

Phillip Bump argued in a July 2011 Atlantic story that technology has created a golden age for introverts, allowing them to spend more time away from the hurly burly of the office and to communicate through carefully crafted email messages rather than in-person and telephonic chitchat.

In a 2010 U.S. News and World Report column, consultant and Execupundit Michael Wade effectively accused introverts of invading the workplace, forcing communication into emails and Facebook messages and barring old-fashioned extroverts from looking each other in the eye or picking up the phone to hash out a problem.

“Lyndon Johnson used to run the United States Senate by keeping a phone glued to his ear,” Wade fumed, speculating the former extrovert in chief and Senate majority leader would not have lowered himself to “tapping out messages to Senators Dirksen and Russell.”

Pannapacker’s piece is partly a review of Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking in which she argues the 19th century was defined by contemplative introverts such as Thoreau and Emily Dickinson while the 20th century was dominated by brash extroverts the likes of Horatio Alger and P.T. Barnum.

Bump makes a similar observation but notes email, voicemail and other technologies have returned some of that 19th century sense of American solitude in a vast untamed land.

One of the peculiar characteristics of our digitally and socially connected age is that introversion and extroversion have become much more difficult to pin down.

Being always available and always on is, if anything, more prized than ever. But we can do it from the solitude of our own homes, never looking anyone in the eye.

People who are masters of engagement in personal conversation can stumble and come off stilted when they try to express that same level of engagement in an email, Tweet or Facebook post. And who hasn’t met someone who can dominate an email chain or social media debate but who turns out to be shy and awkward in person?

That’s not to say the introvert-extrovert divide has completely outlived its usefulness, but it may not be the best marker for success in the social and digital age. Perhaps Myers-Briggs should add a few more letters.

(Image via rangizzz /