Introvert vs Extrovert: Is this an appropriate interview question?

Extrovert or Introvert?

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? It seems like everyone wants to know this these days. Some believe that these are characteristics we build during our upbringing, but studies suggest being introverted or extroverted is dependent on the chemical wiring of our brains. (Check out this BBC article.)

If introversion really is a genetic trait, then it’s time we start asking this question: Is it appropriate for potential employers to make us categorize ourselves as an introvert or an extrovert?

A few weeks ago I had a phone interview that went from the typical questions into a rapid-fire round.

Mac or PC?

Android or iOS?

Introvert or extrovert?

All of these questions bothered me a little because it seemed like their purpose was to weed people out. While the first two were a little frustrating, the last one really bothered me.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Is there a correct way for introverts to answer this question? Introvert has a negative connotation. If I said introvert, I would have been deemed someone only suitable for socializing with cats. If I said extrovert, I’d be lying.

In an attempt to make the best of this, I said I thought I was a good mix of both but that if I had to choose, I’d say introvert. It was an honest answer; no one is 100% one or the other. Still, I felt like I was judged for admitting to my quiet nature.

So, you may ask, why didn’t you just lie? I tried that once, with horrifying results.

About two years ago, I applied for a part-time PR position at a boutique firm. The ad clearly stated that only extroverts should apply, but I thought I could just put on my acting hat and become an extrovert. I made it through the first round, which was a writing sample. But when I got to the in-person interview, things deteriorated quickly.

The woman who founded this PR firm was a very in-your-face person. She was a little pushy and not afraid to say exactly what she was thinking. Unfortunately, from the moment we met, her thoughts were, “You are not an extrovert.”

This woman stared me down. She didn’t just listen to my interview answers, she watched them. My body language, the conviction in my voice and my eye contact all told her in an instant that I wasn’t extroverted.

Ten minutes in, my interviewer said that I didn’t seem extroverted enough and proceeded to pick at me throughout the interview to test her theory. The more she prodded, the more I shrank inwardly. I tried to remain friendly and talkative. I smiled. I joked. I explained that interviews are nerve-wracking, which is why I might have seemed quiet. But she didn’t buy it. And I didn’t get the job.

Looking back, this seems somewhat fair. That position would have required me to do a lot of schmoozing and socializing at events, which is the one portion of that job I would have dreaded. But I could have done it. And I could have gotten good at it if I had been given the chance.Susan Cain

Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” discusses our society’s preference for extroverted people and how this is hindering the success of introverts. If you haven’t read it yet, you should skedaddle over to your local library and pick it up.

Rather than thinking of introversion and extroversion as shy versus talkative, Cain, like many researchers, suggests that the difference lies in stimuli and how much environmental stimulation is preferred. Extroverts feed off of high environmental stimulation, while introverts would rather spend time in environments with low amounts of stimulation.

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” ~Susan Cain

Cain references studies that suggest a brain’s preference for stimulation is genetic. According to her, introversion is something you were born with, not something you learned.

I tend to agree with this thought, which is why it aggravates me when interviewers ask you to classify yourself in this way.

It’s like applying for a job in a warehouse and being asked if you’re tall. If you say no, you might be hurting your chances of being hired. But just because you’re short doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. It might take a little more effort on your part than it would for a tall person, but you are still able to do what’s being asked of you.

I can somewhat understand this question coming up during interviews for jobs that require a great deal of socializing. But the most recent job I interviewed for was an SEO position. I was told that 90% of the job was writing and researching. This leads me to believe that the question was asked to see if I would fit in with their work environment, which is like being asked if you’re tall because your co-workers are tall and enjoy the company of tall people. Not cool.

While stating you’re extroverted might help you land a job, I cannot imagine a situation in which admitting the opposite would do the same. Just read what Cain has to say.

“Introversion- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” ~Susan Cain

Since introversion and extroversion are believed to be inherited traits, and since being an introvert is frowned upon, I think this is a question that should be added to an interviewer’s list of “do not ask” questions.

What do you think? Is it fair for an interviewer to ask if you are introverted or extroverted?


5 thoughts on “Introvert vs Extrovert: Is this an appropriate interview question?

    • Good question! I probably should have explained that better. Yeah a stimulating environment basically has a lot of activity. The classic example is an extrovert would really enjoy a big party, while an introvert would rather hang out at a low-key event with a small group of people.

  1. Excellent post, Lauren! I just taught the personality segment of Psych 101 this week and we had a lot of class discussion about introversion/extroversion, including Cain’s “Quiet.” What always strikes me from those discussions is that introversion is looked down upon UNTIL I dispel the myths and lay out the reality of what it is to be introverted. Then many more students in my class admit to being an introvert than had at the start of the lecture, and students begin to talk about the strengths of introversion.

    All this to say that I think asking on a job interview is understandable IF it’s truly the case that one personality type would thrive over the other in the particular tasks of the job and/or environment AND if both types are viewed as equally favorable, just different.

    • Thank you for the comment, Rebecca! Yes, I agree that this question does make sense if the job really demands one personality type over the other (which usually means it demands an extrovert).

      I think the point you bring up about your class initially looking down on introverts is interesting, and that thinking is what worries me about this question being asked in interviews. I’m not sure how well employers understand what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert. These seem like buzzwords that are just thrown around with very few people fully internalizing what they mean. Plenty of great leaders have been classified as introverts. If the applicant truly believes he or she can succeed in a specific position, I don’t think the introverted/extroverted question should affect whether or not this person is hired. If the applicant didn’t fully understand what the position entailed before applying, then I can see this question as being helpful.

      Overall it’s a complicated topic, but one that is interesting to think about.

  2. I looked up this topic, because I’ll be interviewing student interns today and the job requires someone who can stick with a problem, research solutions, stay focused, and work independently. I WANT an introvert. I know the typical preference is for extroverted types, but I won’t ask the question outright, because I fear an introverted interviewee may misinterpret my intention and lie. So, I’ll just to find another way to ask it.

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