Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Praise of Extroverts

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. [...] Let him who is not in community beware of being alone."  
Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes this warning in his challenging little book Life Together. His admonition has come to mind several times this week, as my Facebook newsfeed and Pinterest boards seem to be full of article praising introverts. Posts such as this, this, and this abound. As an off-the-chart introvert (INFJ, according to the Meyers-Brigg Type Index), I suppose I ought to be glad that the general public is receiving sound advice about our care and keeping.

Really, though, I'm kind of sick of all this hype about introverts.  We have our virtues, no doubt, but I think that even these virtues shine best when sharpened against the very real strength of extroverts.

Many of my dearest friends are extroverts, and while we don't always understand one another, we have learned to give thanks for one another. And so, in honor of my father, my Lindsay, my Emily, and so many other dear outward-going friends, I offer a few thoughts in praise of extroverts.

Extroverts enliven community

Left to my own introverted devices, I would only communicate to people through handwritten letters. I might venture face to face conversations if we could meet in the privacy of my own living room, and if we stopped talking every fifteen minutes so I could take a nap to recharge.  Yes, yes, I exaggerate -- but only slightly. I spent most of my adolescence in more-or-less voluntary solitude, ignoring Bonhoeffer's warning. I had no real community, and so my solitude sank into selfishness.

In college, however, I met people who loved people in ways that baffled me. These men and women took pains to connect and gather people together. During these years, I never lost my love of a quiet meal with a good book, but I did discover the new joy of a full table and long, loud, laughing supper.  I still spent hours studying on my own, but I came to appreciate the nights when my friends kidnapped me from the library for an impromptu group road trip. Without my more extroverted friends, my understanding of community and, more importantly, of the Church, would have remained incomplete during those formative college years.

Extroverts model generosity

Even if we seem open and talkative, introverts often reveal our secondary personality traits as our "public" side, while only manifesting primary qualities among trusted friends. For example, my deepest, most powerful response to an idea, person or situation is always emotional, not analytical or rational. However, my public and professional life emphasizes my analytic, thinking side: I have a PhD, I teach critical analysis of literature, etc. I do have a strong rational capacity; it simply isn't my primary response to the world. Only a select few--those I deem worthy--see the parts of me I value the most.

Extroverts, on the other hand, often humble me with their radical openness. They display their hearts and minds to nearly anyone. This can make life with extroverts messy, but at their best, extroverts have taught me how beautiful it can be to meet any human as a potential friend, brother, sister.

Extroverts spread the word

One of my own worst habits as an introvert is projecting my introversion onto others. "I don't want to bother them...." I tell myself, justifying my reticence about mentioning a new book, a concert, even the Gospel. Because I often simply wish to be left alone, even when someone is offering me something brilliant or vital, I  give up too easily when I have a message others need to hear.

My favorite extroverts seem untroubled by these inhibitions. "Come one, come all!" they will cry. "The more the merrier!" Because extroverts garner energy from people, they thrive on the busy street or in the bustling room, and the genuinely want as many people as possible to come, see, taste, and enjoy with them.

Extroverts allow introverts to be introverts

I spend much of my time pretending to be an extrovert, especially in my professional life. Furthermore, as a single person without a nearby "best friend" or family, I have to put myself forward in order to build relationships. These are rewarding efforts, but when I am in the company of a true extrovert, I find myself thanking God for a chance to rest.

Both of my parents are extroverts, and when I am home for Christmas, I savor being able to sit in the living room and simply listen. Visitors might call, and my mother and father will keep them talking, allowing me to sit, smile, and knit. Even introverts love being in a circle of beloved friends, but this introvert certainly appreciates not being the one responsible for keeping the conversation going.

My dear, dear extroverts: you bewilder and exasperate me, but my solitude would have little value without your challenging, God-gathering witness. It may seem like everyone's celebrating introverts these days, but at least one among your quiet kindred wants you to know how much she loves you.

A few of my favorite extroverts....


  1. Bravo, bravo (as one I to another--INFP, to be MBTI-precise)! The extroverts in my life, especially my husband (whose picture, I'm sure, is found in the dictionary beside the definition of the word) have enriched my life in countless ways. I've moved a tad toward "E" in my own right as the result, I'm sure, of their continuing influence and example.

    The extroverts I love best allow me the freedom to embrace the introvert I believe God created me to be. And I hope they would say the same in reverse. As you point out, we introverts wouldn't think of forcing ourselves or our personalities on others. But that doesn't mean we don't pursue our own interests rather than those of Christ Jesus. And sometimes, the self He calls to come and die may be the one that prefers solitude, time to think before responding, and clearly-defined personal space.

    Extro- or introvert, may we never be so bound by our personality types or preferences that we miss the beauty of laying down our lives, our selves, in His service. Soli deo gloria!

    1. As a fellow introvert, I add my 'well said' to Marti's.

  2. I am still amazed how 2 introverts conceived and gave birth to 2 extroverts!

    1. Well, as far as I know, Bethany's mom still considers herself to be an introvert, but she does have the gift of being able to put aside those introverted tendencies in order to make everyone around her feel welcome in her home. I'd say it's a gift that is mirrored in my wife, Liz, who comments somewhere else on this page.

    2. I meant me and my husband Keith, both introverts, gave birth to 2 extroverts, Matt and Rachel. Rachel was Bethany's roommate at Carson Newman.

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  4. The sweetest gesture a particular extrovert made for me was to lend me his cd player & classical cds for a 12-14 hour van drive. After a full week of constantly being around people (except for 6:30 or 7am when I woke up first for alone time in the Bible), I was exhausted & dreading the ride back. The cd player allowed me to retreat into my introverted world to recharge my batteries in a desperately needed way. That act of compassion and generosity meant a lot to me.

  5. Oh my goodness, Bethany, thank you. The Introvert Fever has been rampant in my house the last couple weeks, so it's refreshing to hear some positives about those of us more-public-personality types. Myers-Briggs says I'm about 90% extrovert, but I'm still an ok dude.

    1. I'm sure many would say you're more than ok, Lucas. For the last seven years or so, I've lived mostly among introverts (grad school attracts us), so my appreciation of extroverts has grown in precision and strength.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. All the posts about introverts, recently, has left me feeling a bit dizzy! I love the energy, enthusiasm and generosity of extroverts. Thank you so much for taking the time to celebrate the extroverts in our midst!