Bill Gates is quiet and bookish, but apparently unfazed by others’ opinions of him: he’s an introvert, but not shy.
Barbra Streisand has an outgoing, larger than life personality, who also battles with a paralyzing case of stage fright: she’s a shy extrovert.
Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments. Some psychologists map the two tendencies on vertical and horizontal axes, with the introvert-extrovert spectrum on the horizontal axis and the anxious-stable spectrum on the vertical. With this model, you end up with four quadrants of personality types: calm extroverts, anxious (or impulsive) extroverts, calm introverts, and anxious introverts.
Interestingly, this view of human nature is echoed in ancient Greece. The physicians Hippocrates and Galen famously proposed that our temperaments—and destinies—were a function of bodily fluids. Extra blood made people sanguine (calmly extroverted), yellow bile made them choleric (impulsively extroverted), phlegm made them phlegmatic (calmly introverted), and black bile made them melancholic (anxiously introverted).
But if shyness and introversion are so different, why do we often link them, especially in the popular media?
The most important answer is that there’s a shared bias in our society against both traits. The mental state of a shy extrovert sitting quietly in a business meeting may be very different from that of a calm introvert—the shy person is afraid to speak up, while the introvert is simply overstimulated—but to the outside world, the two appear to be the same, and neither type is welcome. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable, and even smarter than slow ones.
Galen aside, poets and philosophers throughout history, like John Milton and Arthur Schopenhauer, have associated shyness with introversion. As the anthropologist C.A. Valentine once wrote,
Western cultural traditions include a conception of individual variability which appears to be old, widespread, and persistent. In popular form this is the familiar notion of the man of action, practical man, realist, or sociable person as opposed to the thinker, dreamer, idealist, or shy individual. The most widely used labels associated with this tradition are the type designations extrovert and introvert.
Were these sages flat out wrong? No. Psychologists have found that shyness and introversion do overlap (meaning that many shy people are introverted, and vice versa), though they debate to what degree. There are several reasons for this overlap. For one thing, some people are born with “high-reactive” temperaments that predispose them to both shyness and introversion. Also, a shy person may become more introverted over time; since social life is painful, she is motivated to discover the pleasures of solitude and other minimally social environments. And an introvert may become shy after continually receiving the message that there’s something wrong with him.
But shyness and introversion don’t overlap completely, or even predominantly. Sometime ago, I published an op-ed in The New York Times on the value of these two characteristics. It touched a chord in a readership hungry for this message. It quickly became the #1 most e-mailed article, and I received over a thousand heartfelt notes of thanks.
But some letter writers felt that the article conflated introversion with shyness and, as such, had misrepresented them. Though I did make a clear distinction in the piece between the two, these writers were correct that I moved on quickly, perhaps too quickly, to other subjects. I did this because of space constraints—if I had tried to explain everything I just outlined above (and even this post only scratches the surface of a highly complex topic), I would never have gotten to the real point: the importance of shyness and introversion in a society that disdains them.
Still, I understand why non-anxious introverts feel frustrated when people treat them as if they’re shy. It’s inherently annoying to be misunderstood, to be told that you’re something that you’re not. Anyone who has walked down the street deep in thought and been instructed by a stranger to smile—as if he were depressed, rather than mentally engaged—knows how maddening this is.
Also, shyness implies submissiveness. And in a competitive culture that reveres alpha dogs, one-downmanship is probably the most damning trait of all.
Yet, this is where the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have something profound in common. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good, smart, and wise. For very different reasons, shy and introverted people might choose to spend their days in behind-the-scenes or “passive” pursuits like inventing, studying, or holding the hands of the dying. These are not alpha roles, but the people who play them are role models all the same.
*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.