Tonal Cacophony: An Exploration of Introversion, Extroversion, and Human Identity

Processed with VSCO with g3 preset

A Bowl of Goldfish

I recently heard a story of an American woman living in the city of Kolkata, India.  This woman was a self-avowed introvert whose existence in a city with a population of 14.1 million was often less than comfortable. On one of those particularly difficult days, this American woman decided to take herself out to dinner. The waiter questioned her multiple times,

“Are you alone? Are you sure you aren’t waiting for someone?”

She repeatedly assured them that she was indeed dining alone. A few minutes later, the owner of the restaurant came out of the kitchen carrying his goldfish bowl. He put the goldfish bowl in the chair beside her and smiled.

“So you won’t be lonely.”

I heard this story from a coffee shop customer, a wonderfully gentle and well-spoken missionary from India who was spending two weeks in the hotel upstairs to write a book about her experiences in India.

During her hotel stay, Beth and I had many conversations about introversion and extroversion. After telling her about my recent blogpost on how to survive as an introvert in a small town, Beth explained that there is no Hindi equivalent for the word “alone.” There is the Hindi word अकेला (pronounce ah-keh-la) but it is defined as meaning “alone, lonely, lone, only, single, lonesome” and as Beth told me, the word has negative connotations. Compared with the English definition of the word alone (“having no one else present; on one’s own”), it is clear that the two cultures have very different ideas about aloneness. This fact should not be surprising when considering the structure of the traditional Indian family. The typical Indian household includes multiple generations living and working together collectively. According to the Indian Journal of Psychiatry,

Any generalizations about the Indian family suffer from oversimplification, given the pluralistic nature of the Indian culture. However, in most sociological studies, Asian and Indian families are considered classically as large, patriarchal, collectivistic, joint families, harboring three or more generations vertically and kith and kin horizontally…Indian joint families are considered to be strong, stable, close, resilient and enduring with focus on family integrity, family loyalty, and family unity at expense of individuality, freedom of choice, privacy and personal space…Structurally, the Indian joint family includes three to four living generations, including grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, all living together in the same household, utilizing a common kitchen and often spending from a common purse, contributed by all.


For me, as an American introvert, the idea of needing quality “alone time” is a quotidian necessity, but after my conversations with Beth about her friend and the traditional structure of the Indian family, I began to question the entire concept of introversion and extroversion. Do other cultures possess this obsession with identifying others as introvert or extrovert? Do other cultures think in such clearly contrasting binaries? Do other cultures possess a similar understanding of introversion and extroversion (despite the fact that there is no Hindi equivalent for “alone”)? These conversations ignited my curiosity and had me asking: where did the idea of introversion and extroversion originate and perhaps more importantly- is this concept a Western construct?


Street Haunting

Compared with Kolkata or London or New York City, my hometown is tiny and as I have written about before, existing here can be difficult. For while it is sometimes comforting to know so many people, going out is more often a constant barrage of forced interactions with a steady stream of people I know from over two decades of living here. For that reason, large cities have always possessed a desirability to me. To exist in a place in which going out in public is not a guarantee to see all of your coffee shop customers and old acquaintances. Or to exist in a place in which strangers don’t incessantly attack you with smiles and small talk. (Remind me to share the story of an older man at my favorite park who came up to me and told me his dog Stinky’s life story.) While I have friends who do enjoy these constant friendly encounters, as an introvert, I prefer to keep mostly to myself. This is why I love large cities so much. In these large cities, you are surrounded by strangers, the company of which I most often desire.

I am not alone in my desire for anonymity for as Rebecca Solnit writes in her 2009 essay about Virginia Woolf, big cities are often seen by westerners as a sort of mecca for introverts who want to be left alone.

[Virginia Woolf’s] great essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure,’ from 1930…takes a fictionalized or invented excursion to buy a pencil in the winter dusk of London as an excuse to explore darkness, wandering, invention, the annihilation of identity…’We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.’ Here she describes a form of society that doesn’t enforce identity but liberates it the society of strangers, the republic of the streets, the experience of being anonymous and free that big cities invented.


This passage from Solnit’s essay immediately resonated with me. Both Virginia Woolf and Rebecca Solnit share my affinity and innate (or is it?) need for being inconspicuous and unknown. But the idea that large cities provide anonymity seems only to apply to western cities. For as Beth’s friend discovered while living in Kolkata, to the restaurant owner who so generously provided the company of his goldfish, the idea of desiring aloneness was completely foreign.


The Age Old Question

So introversion must be a Western construct, right? While mulling over this question, I mentioned this idea to a friend. I was surprised by how immediately and confidently she disagreed with me. This friend felt that her introversion was an essential element of her self, an element not influenced by culture; an element that she imagined she would possess no matter where she had been born.

“But how,” I countered, “Can one exist as an introvert in a culture that revolves around a multi-generational family unit and in a culture that does not have a word for alone?”

This is the age old question—what elements of our beings are innate and which are influenced by society? Is the introversion/extroversion binary one of those characteristics that is innate? Or is it a Western construct?

I began researching the history of introversion and extroversion in the quest to answer this question—is introversion/extroversion integral to one’s core self or is it purely influenced by the culture in which one is immersed in from birth?


The Mirror Stage

Often called the French Freud, Jacques Lacan would have strongly disagreed with my friend’s assertion that her introversion was a characteristic with which she was born, a characteristic she would have possessed despite the culture she was born into. For in Lacan’s opinion, one’s “self” is purely the reflections of one’s family, friends, and culture’s projections. Lacan is famous for his interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s “The Mirror Stage.” Very literally, Lacan claims that the mirror stage is the processes by which an infant recognizes herself in the mirror for the first time to the negative feelings the infant possesses upon realizing her own helplessness to hearing the projections of others, (“What a beautiful little girl!”) and to the final “misrecognition”—the idea that one can never know oneself.

In summary:

The ego is not only a congealed, heteronomous object rather than fluid, autonomous subject, but also, in its very origins, a repository for the projected desires and fantasies of larger others; the child’s image is a receptacle for his/her parents’ dreams and wishes, with his/her body image being always-already overwritten by signifiers flowing from the libidinal economies of other speaking beings. Hence, recognizing the ego as “me,” as embodying and representing an authentic, private, unique selfhood that is most genuinely my own, is tantamount to misrecognizing that, at root, the ego ultimately is an alienating foreign introject through which I am seduced and subjected by others’ conscious and unconscious wants and machinations…

Finally, Lacan’s utilization of the idea of the mirror is not exclusively literal. Although he often talks of mirrors as shiny reflective surfaces, he does not limit mirroring to being a visible physical phenomenon alone. Most importantly, other persons’ speech, gestures, postures, moods, facial expressions, and so on frequently can be said to “mirror” back to one an “image” of oneself, namely, a conveyed sense of how one “appears” from other perspectives.


Once understanding Lacan’s mirror stage, it becomes apparent that he could never concede that children are innately introverted or extroverted. Instead, if a cild is introverted, Lacan would argue that the child is introverted because her parent’s projections made her so.

In Maggie Nelson’s searing memoir The Argonauts she explores Lacanian ideas of self and societal projections.

We develop in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off us. Eventually we call that snowball a self.

So which is it? Is introversion and extroversion a characteristic influenced solely by the projections of others as Lacan argued? Or is it an innate characteristic?



The terms introversion and extroversion were coined by Sigmund Freud, however, it was Freud’s student and colleague Carl Jung who took Freud’s ideas and further developed them. In Jung’s 1921 book Psychological Types, he expounds in great detail upon his theories concerning the temperaments, personalities, and thought processes of introverts vs. extroverts.

The Stanford Medical Bulletin most succinctly summarizes Jung’s ideas.

Extroversion and introversion, terms introduced into psychology by Carl Jung to identify opposite psychological types. Jung saw the activity of the extrovert directed toward the external world and that of the introvert inward upon himself or herself. ..The extrovert is characteristically the active person who is most content when surrounded by people; carried to the neurotic extreme such behavior appears to constitute an irrational flight into society, where the extrovert’s feelings are acted out. The introvert, on the other hand, is normally a contemplative individual who enjoys solitude and the inner life of ideas and the imagination.


Reading through Jung’s Psychological Types, I was surprised by the detail in which Jung describes the two different personality types because in today’s culture, the complexities of Jung’s theory are adulterated to the point that introversion and extroversion are solely defined by whether one is quiet or a “people-person.”

“Oh, I’m totally an introvert! I don’t like big crowds!” As if this is all there is to it.

This watered-down Western version of introversion and extroversion is exactly caused me to question whether this aspect of personality is a Western construct. For if the all encompassing definition of an introvert is “doesn’t like big crowds,” then how could one possibly exist in an Indian city like Mumbai with a population of over 18 million and in a culture in which the idea of being alone has negative connotations? Would introversion be a personality trait as western as “high-maintenance?”

“I know, I know. I’m a diva. I’m just high-maintenance!” We know, of course, that a baby is not born with this gross sense of entitlement, and that one who claims to be innately “high-maintenance” is only this way because of a society that is privileged and enabling.

As I discovered after only reading a few paragraphs of Jung’s book, the theory introversion and extroversion is much more complex and multi-faceted than Western society presents. While Jung compares many different aspects of introverts and extroverts personalities (thinking, feeling, sensing, intuitiveness), the principle idea that Jung develops is the idea that introverts and extroverts are primarily different in their methods of thought processing.

A few excerpts from Psychological Types in which Jung describes the core differences between introvert’s and extroverts…

A description of the extrovert’s thought processes:

We have already seen that the extraverted feeling type, as a rule, represses his thinking, just because thinking is the function most liable to disturb feeling. Similarly, when thinking seeks to arrive at pure results of any kind, its first act is to exclude feeling, since nothing is calculated to harass and falsify thinking so much as feeling-values. Thinking, therefore, in so far as it is an independent function, is repressed in the extraverted feeling type.


A description of the introvert’s thought processes:

Like his extraverted parallel, he is decisively influenced by ideas; these, however, have their origin, not in the objective data but in the subjective foundation. Like the extravert, he too will follow his ideas, but in the reverse direction: inwardly not outwardly. Intensity is his aim, not extensity. In these fundamental characters he differs markedly, indeed quite unmistakably from his extraverted parallel.


It is clear that the primary difference that Jung draws between introverts and extroverts is internal processing as opposed to a repression of introspection. It is also important to realize that Jung is making generalizations and as he points out throughout Psychological Types, people do not always fall into clear categories and his descriptions are of those on the most extreme spectrum of the introvert and extrovert scale. In Jung’s mind, there is most definitely a scale on which individuals fall—not strict categorizations of “introvert” or “definitely extrovert” that every one falls into. This idea of putting people into one of only two boxes is a recent and Westernization of Jung’s original ideas.


Antarmukha and Bahirmukha

In researching the possibility of introversion and extroversion being a Western construct, I stumbled across an ancient Indian philosophy which was surprising in its similarities to Jung’s core ideas about personality types. In Indian yogic philosophy, there are also two primary personality types but instead of focusing on the need to be alone or the need to be surrounded by people as modern perceptions of introversion and extroversion indicate, like Jung, this philosophy focuses on the method of thought processing. The two personality types in Indian yogic philosophy are Antarmukha and Bahirmukha.

The Antarmukha, like Jung’s introvert, is introspective and intuitive. Conversely, the Bahrimukha is one who thrives on interaction with others, who takes less time to get in touch with her inner thought processes. The Bahrimukha is one who prioritizes the physical and the sensual over emotion, thinking, and introspection.

Hindi philosophers had the idea of introversion and extroversion centuries before Carl Jung was even born. Therefore, the idea of introversion and extroversion is not a western construct.


A Mother-In-Law from Hell

While Jung’s ideas classify introverts and extroverts in terms of self-reflection (one is more introspective and one gains information from the external) and while these ideas align clearly with Indian Yogic philosophy of Antharmukha and Bahirmukha, the core idea of introversion and extroversion have been twisted beyond recognition and westernized to an extraordinary degree. In my quest to fully understand the concept of introversion and extroversion, the necessity of exploring the history and impacts of the famous Myers-Briggs personality test seemed imperative for it is from this test that modern Western concepts of introversion and extroversion originated.

The Myers-Briggs personality test has an absurdly quirky history. Developed by Katherine Briggs in 1943, Briggs was concerned about her daughter Isabel’s fiancé Clarence Myers. Briggs noticed that Myers processed things much differently than Katherine and her daughter and Katherine could not be sure that the two were compatible. Jung’s Psychological Types had been published only 20 years before and Katherine was fascinated by Jung’s ideas. Along with psychometricians and psychology professors, Briggs developed the test that is now so popular.

You think your in-laws are crazy? Try having a mother-in-law who developed a personality test just to make sure that you are good enough for her daughter.


Smashing Binaries

Just as the ACT and SAT tests attempt to quantify student intelligence, the Myers-Briggs test cheapens our ideas of who we are as humans by categorizing and labeling aspects of our personalities and by propagating the ever present idea of binaries.

(“Are you straight or gay?”

“Are you religious or an atheist?”

“Are you a democrat or a republican?”

And of course—“Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”)

By shoving ourselves (and each other) into strict categories, we oversimplify the complexities of human nature. This is a symptom of a culture that attempts to define everything, categorize everything, and ignore the grey areas; a culture that forgets that personalities exist on a scale.

To reference essayist Rebbeca Solnit again, one of the great purposes of literature is to smash these binaries.

My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings—impossible to categorize—at the heart of things.



Tonal Cacophony

As the Stanford Medical Bulletin points out, “Jung did not suggest strict classification of individuals as extroverted or introverted, since each person has tendencies in both directions, although one direction generally predominates.” If strict classification was never Jung’s intent, then it is remarkable to observe how American culture has twisted the both his ideas and the philosophies of Hinduism in order to categorize and order people into neat little boxes.

While I originally assumed introversion and extroversion was a Western construct, it is apparent after reading Carl Jung’s Psychological Types and comparing it with Indian philosophy, that this idea of internal vs external processing is one that appears like a common thread weaving throughout history. It is only within the past fifty years that the original concepts have been transformed to fulfill our insatiable human craving of binaries and labels. The very fact of this disfigurement leads me to wonder: what other ideas has Western culture mangled beyond recognition?

In answering my original premise, I also stumbled across the philosophical question—is identity innate as Jung claimed? Or are our identities purely reflections of culture and our environments as Jacques Lacan argued?

Is it even necessary to answer this question? Is it necessary to label each other as introvert or as extrovert? It is tempting to simplify each other’s identities– for this is much easier than attempting to understand the subtleties and abstractions of humanity. But if we only thing we learn one thing from reading Lacan or Jung–it is that humans are vast and complex.

Why do we attempt to define each other when we know that humans are capable of truly marvelous feats of intellectual prowess and creative imagination?

NASA is currently developing solar electric propulsion systems to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Philosophers are still exploring the question of human consciousness.

The physicalists believe, with Dennett, that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms. The dualists believe that science can uncover only half of the picture: it can’t explain what Nabokov called “the marvel of consciousness—that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being.”


At this very moment, your cells are replicating at a rate of millions per second.

Maggie Nelson writes with a beautifully philosophical voice, “Empirically speaking, we are made of star stuff. Why aren’t we talking more about that? Materials never leave this world. They just keep recycling, recombining.”

Composer Frederic Rzewski’s piece Coming Together for narrator and unspecified instruments is breathtaking in its description of the 1971 Attica prison riots. Using the text from an Attica inmate’s letter who died after sustaining a wound in the riots, and using a series of notes that the instrumentalists may play at any tempo or volume, Rzewski creates a seemingly oxymoronic masterpiece of tonal cacophony. And perhaps, like Rzewski’s Coming Together, our identities are just that–a sort of tonal cacophony. Our identities as humans–occasionally full of logical and sparkling harmonies but often simultaneously interwoven with discord and inexplicable chaos.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s