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10 November 2021

From the NS archive: Introverts and extroverts

25 March 1922: Some thoughts on personality types by a very amateur psychologist.

By Lens

During the 1920s, a writer under the pen name “Lens” was a regular contributor to the New Statesman. In this piece, a copper-bottomed oddity, they took the theme of extroverts and introverts and spun some theories around it. To the modern eye, Lens’s approach is both extraordinarily unscientific and broad-brush – the Nordic races were, they reckoned, by and large introverts, and the Mediterranean people extroverts; drink could turn an introvert into an extrovert (especially Scots – of whom he has a caricaturist’s view) but extroverts were drunk on life; “the introvert, at the worst, commits suicide; the extrovert, homicide”, and so on. “Let no extrovert suppose… that, because people like hearing him, he necessarily has anything worth saying to say,” Lens warns, with little self-awareness. The piece is redolent of a dinner-party guest – a couple of glasses in – expounding on a favoured topic of conversation, and should perhaps be taken about as seriously.

The reader has doubtless read many brilliant descriptions of Carnival, and the fact that I have lately been in the fun myself and mightily enjoyed it must not tempt me to a superfluous effort in portrayal of its externals. But perhaps its internals are less obvious and familiar, not unfit for analysis here. The thing is a creation of the Southern temperament, as we sometimes call it. A student’s torchlight procession, such as we used to have in Edinburgh, amusing though it may be, is almost infinitely removed from Carnival as it may be seen at Nice or elsewhere in the South.

The Carnival crowd is by no means composed only of the young, and all ages enjoy it. There is an infectious quality, invading even staid Northerners, who may be standing at their hotel doors, curiously looking on, until all of a sudden, an unprecedented impulse seizes them, and they will snatch even handfuls of soiled confetti from the ground and join in with glee.

This possibility of the transformation of a temperament is very important, as we shall see. But the transformation is evident and necessary. A real, inherent difference exists between the Northern visitors and the natives. One observes it in the singers who come into the hotel garden. An old tenor of seventy-three had little voice left, but what he had was a living instrument, at which no violinist, even, could sneer; and its musical significance was immeasurably greater than that of, say, a typical British contralto who could boom against a thunderstorm. One need merely hint at the difference between what passes for acting in British “films” and the real thing as we know it from other sources: or the contrast between, say, Mr Asquith’s oratorical style and that of Mr Vandervelde: or the emotionless face and limbs of a Scotsman as he converses with you, compared with any Southern conversationalists, whom you might easily but wrongly suppose to be highly inebriated or on the verge of a furious quarrel…

Broadly speaking, one of the ways in which mankind may be divided is into introverts and extroverts, as Dr C G Jung, of Zurich, has called them. The distinction is immensely interesting and significant, and it is absolutely valid, even though we recognise extrovert members of introvert races and vice versa and the possibility of temporarily converting an introvert into an extrovert, and the certainty that both styles of temperament or conduct are potential in all of us.

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The terms go far to explain themselves. The introvert, of course, is the quiet, controlled cautious taciturn man of whom we recognise the typical Scot – a very fine type. He is slow and obstructed in speech, “jokes wi’ deeficulty”, calls his weather at its most abominable “saft”, and says “not bad” where I should say “superb”. As an orator, actor, companion he is poor: as a fighter, pioneer, friend in need he cannot be beaten. He has invented one of the most “dour”, unattractive, un-Oriental forms imaginable of his religion, which is, of course, of Oriental origin. So far as one can judge, he does not greatly enjoy life. He drinks whisky, under the influence of which he is temporarily transformed. “Let us see what it is that makes a Scotsman happy,” said Johnson to Boswell at Inverary, when about to sample the local distillate.

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The typical extrovert, of course, is the contrast to all, or nearly all, that. He expresses himself in Carnival. The quasi-riotous, uproarious, almost outrageous crowd is absolutely sober: I saw not a vestige of drunkenness in two days of Carnival. Goethe said that “Jugend ist Trunkenheit ohne Wein”, and the extrovert temperament, like youth, can feel and behave (in a sense) as if drunk, without wine. Your Nordic race, typically, as in Scot, Scandinavian, North German, is introvert: the Mediterranean race extrovert.

When things go wrong, the two types of temperament react differently. The introvert, at the worst, commits suicide; the extrovert, homicide. Short of that, under the influence of disease or strain, as during the war, the introvert becomes a victim of neurasthenia, gloomy, depressed, miserable, and desperately hard to cheer: the extrovert becomes a victim of hysteria, and has paralytic symptoms in limbs or elsewhere, perhaps, but is perfectly happy and a most cheerful companion.

I am aware of no evidence or arguments which suggest that there is any superiority of any kind, physical, intellectual or moral, that can be claimed for either temperament over the other, and if anything here written suggests that I am trying to claim any such superiority for either, I here disclaim it. But I know which I prefer to be with, having spent Sundays in Scotland and the South of France respectively, and which I prefer to face on, or from, a platform, but that is another question.

Let us return to that extraordinary drug, alcohol, which contrives to get itself concerned with so many aspects of the life and nature of man. Can Jung’s classification help us to understand certain national phenomena? Dr William McDougall, our great psychologist, now in the chair of William James at Harvard, has suggested that it can. He invokes it as an alternative explanation to that suggested by Sir Archdall Reid some twenty years ago for the greater sobriety of the Mediterranean nations. (A caveat must be entered here. When I was in Milan in 1918 I found evidence, from Italian students, to suggest that, under urban industrial conditions comparable to those in our country, modern Italians can and do become drunkards in many instances. But here we will proceed with the usually accepted data.) The theory of Reid was, and is, that the Mediterranean races, having long had wine, have become sober by age-long selection, those unduly susceptible to the charm of alcohol having been weeded out. And that, he tells us, is the only way to get a sober race: it must have long enough opportunities for drunkenness, and then the survivors will necessarily be sober. There is, of course, very much to be written on that theory, but here we merely state it.

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McDougall offers another, entirely different. The introvert likes alcohol because it “makes him temporarily extrovert”. Under its influence he finds himself outward-minded, forgets to brood, lets Calvinistic pre-destination go hang, can talk without saying “e-e-h” at every third word – in fine, it “makes a Scotsman happy”. But the natural extrovert, why should he care whether or not he has alcohol inside him? A Scotsman on the Atlantic, three years ago, hearing of my peculiar views on this subject – they grow less peculiar every day (ambiguity for once) – invited me into the smoking-room after dinner and besought me to have some whisky and “feel real damned good”. Being a Scotsman, the poor dear fellow could not realise that I, being “very otherwise”, feel what he calls “real damned good”, though a teetotaller, all the time.

The Carnival crowd that I have just been watching reminds me of this explanation which McDougall offers of its notable sobriety, or, rather, its non-alcoholic inebriety. But I am formidably nonplussed in accepting McDougall’s explanation as final. Other things being adequate, it is a very convenient and pleasant arrangement to be an extrovert living amongst people mostly introvert. We all enjoy fluent, spontaneous, easy, expressive talk, whether in conversation or on a platform. If a man be so constituted, in virtue, probably, of an unusual racial strain, that he behaves as an extrovert directly he has an audience, he will always find people who are willing to hear him and even to pay for doing so, and this is all the better for him, since being an extrovert when speaking, he necessarily enjoys doing so.

The poignant reflection is, however, incumbent upon us that there is absolutely no correlation whatever between the power of expression and the worth of the thing expressed. Let no extrovert suppose, therefore, that, because people like hearing him, he necessarily has anything worth saying to say. There is doubtless much virtue in that gospel of silence which, as Lord Morley somewhere says, Carlyle effectively compressed into thirty volumes: a very fine example he, of an introvert whom a pen could convert into an extrovert of the most glorious description.

This little paper is evidently not an attempt to prove anything, but rather, as they say in the States, to “start something”.  

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).