I often find myself explaining to others the true meaning of introversion and extraversion, due to the common misconception that introverts are shy, and extraverts are outgoing.

But that’s not necessarily the case. Fact is, introverts can be shy or outgoing, as can extraverts (for instance, I’m a (relatively) outgoing introvert, and I have a friend who is an outgoing extravert, and also one who is a shy extravert).

Rather than referring to one being shy or outgoing, introversion and/or extraversion instead refers to one’s energy and directedness, as to whether the sources of such are derived primarily internally, or primarily externally. And a side note: it is generally believed that there are many more extraverts than introverts in the world.

But rather than try to explain all this myself, I recently came across one of the best descriptions of introversion vs. extraversion I’ve read—at least as I’ve come to understand it—in Robert Greene‘s new book The Laws of Human Nature (which I’ve found to be quite interesting, and would highly recommend).

NOTE: (I’ve opted to use the original Jungian spelling extravert (with an “a”), while Greene opts to use the more modern spelling extrovert (with an “o”), which is more commonly used in the psychological field when discussing the more recently developed “Big Five Personality Traits“, and, though generally accepted, is in my opinion the incorrect spelling and/or usage.

Either way, here is what Greene has to say about introversion and extraversion:

“In general, people can be divided into introverts and extroverts, and this will pay a large role in the character they develop. Extroverts are largely governed by external criteria. The question that dominates them is “what do others think of me?” They will tend to like what other people like, and the groups they belong to frequently determine the opinions they hold. They are open to suggestion and new ideas, but only if they are popular in the culture or asserted by some authority they respect. Extroverts value external things—good clothes, great meals, concrete enjoyment shared with others. They are in search of new and novel sensations and have a nose for trends. They are not only comfortable with noise and bustle but actively search it out. If they are bold, they love physical adventure. If they are not so bold, they love creature comforts. In any event, they crave stimulation and attention from others.

Introverts are more sensitive and easily exhausted by too much outward activity. They like to conserve their energy, to spend time alone or with one or two close friends. As opposed to extroverts, who are fascinated by facts and statistics for their own sake, introverts are interested in their own opinions and feelings. They love to theorize and come up with their own ideas. If they produce something, they do not like to promote it; they find the effort distasteful. What they make should sell itself. They like to keep a part of their life separate from others, to have secrets. Their opinions do not come from what others think or from any authority but from their inner criteria, or at least they thinks so. The bigger the crowd, the more lost and lonely they feel. They can seem awkward and mistrustful, uncomfortable with attention. They also tend to be more pessimistic and worried than the average extrovert. Their boldness will be expressed by the novel ideas they come up with and their creativity.

You might notice tendencies in both directions in individuals and yourself, but in general people trend in one or the other direction. It is important to gauge this in others for the simple reason: introverts and extroverts do not naturally understand each other. To the extrovert, the introvert has no fun, is stubborn, even antisocial. To the introvert, the extrovert is shallow, flighty, and overly concerned with what people think. Being one or the other is generally something genetic and will make two people see the same thing in a totally different light. Once you understand you are dealing with someone of the other variety than yourself, you must reassess their character and not foist your own preferences on them. Also, sometimes introverts and extroverts can work well together, particularly if people have a mix of both qualities and they complement each other, but more often than not they do not get along and are prone to constant misunderstandings. Keep in mind that there are generally more extroverts than introverts in the world.”

I hope some of you have found this explanation helpful in understanding the true difference between introversion and extraversion. For more on introversion, I highly recommend Susan Cain’s excellent book Quite: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, or you can just watch her TED Talk here:

Susan Cain | The Power of Introverts | Ted Talk, 2012