Ambiverts: Learning How to Be Two Very Different People

large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against w
Large bubble and soap suds on bright cobalt blue plate against white background. Photo courtesy of Lori Greig.

My favourite memory of a great party started at the end.  Five of us stayed behind after the others left, and the host said “hey, let’s clean the apartment right now.” We all played along like it was game, still laughing because we were tipsy.

One person loaded the dishwasher, another did the recycling.  My job was to round up the glasses and beer cans and wipe down every surface.  I remember having to avoid the vacuum cleaner, a big old thing that shone a bright light on everything it devoured in its path.

Because there were five of us, we were done in 15 minutes.  Then we washed our hands, cracked open one last cold one, and sat around chatting in a clean house just before bed.  It freed up several hours for more important things to do on a Sunday morning.  I was 19.

I’m an extreme extrovert, but after a big party I need my quiet time.  Just me and the dishes, doing our craft.  That is the moment when I understand introverts.

Over at Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution, authors Karl Moore and Sara Avramovic describe the experience of those who are a blend of introvert and extrovert.  This hybrid identity has a new term – ambiverts.

In describing ambiverts, the authors point to a 2013 article in Psychological Science entitled “Rethinking the Extroverted Sales Ideal.”  That article runs an analysis of introvert-extrovert indicators against the sales performance in a call centre.  The study finds that those with an extraversion score of 4.5 out of 7 have the highest level of performance.  According to the study:

“Because they naturally engage in a flexible pattern of talking and listening, ambiverts are likely to express sufficient assertiveness and enthusiasm to persuade and close a sale but are more inclined to listen to customers’ interest and less vulnerable to appearing too excited or overconfident.”

It is not so much about having the “best” personality but rather being adaptable.

The article notes that extraversion is a by-product of people having a need for stimulation, because the internal state of the extrovert is dissatisfied and bored with what’s going on inside.  They look to the outside world to get their kicks.  Introverts and ambiverts are closer to being satisfied or balanced in this regard.  Hence the act of selling is not some deep burning social need, and they can hang back a little, play it cool.  And sometimes that can close the deal.

There are nuances to the actual results of the regression analysis.  First, hours worked and job tenure are actually the biggest drivers of performance.  That is, if you work many hours per day and have many years of experience, with practice you become a lot better at your job.  But performance was also tested against the Big Five personality measures: Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness, and Neuroticism.  The traits were assessed on a straight-line and curved-line basis.

Just to get geeky about this for a few seconds, a straight-line measure would look at the two extremes of a personality indicator.  If there was a slope, the highest performance would be at one extreme or the other.  For example you need to be agreeable to be good at sales, but not all the time (it wasn’t statistically significant).  By contrast, if there was a curved-line relationship, and the curve was negative (downward), then there would be a “peak” in the middle, like a volleyball that tips just over the net.  And that is what they found with extraversion; that there is a sweet spot in the middle where you can sneak the volleyball over the net and score when you’re not expecting it.

Back at Quiet Revolution, Moore and Avramovic reported on interviews they conducted with over 50 ambiverts.  They note that being part-way between introversion and extraversion has its strengths and weaknesses.  In terms of strengths, ambiverts have the ability to move back and forth between two different modes, which may be exceptional if they are free to choose.  But ambiverts don’t always get to choose how they will behave.

In terms of internal motivations: “Ambiverts need to be both outgoing and independent, seemingly at random and sometimes with very little regard to what disposition would be best suited for the present moment.”  It may be ideal to sit quiet and listen right when someone else has something important to say.  But the ambivert could just-so-happen to be gearing up to assert an opinion of their own.  They could experience the worst of both worlds if their internal thermostat it out of synch with their environment.

The authors’ advice on how to be an effective ambivert is largely in taking initiative to match to their environment.  They recommend ambiverts control their environment, moving back and forth between alone-time and socializing at their choosing.  They recommend ambiverts plan ahead, building-in some alternation between social and alone moments.  And they recommend ambiverts learn to say no when something won’t work out for them.  All of these recommendations are very much about the person having autonomy, self-directed flexibility, and the independence to choose their mode.

Perhaps this is good advice for everyone?  Even though I’m an extrovert, I still need alone time.  It may be cleaning up after a party, or folding the laundry, or thinking through something private during my daily commute.  These moments are chosen and planned, by me.  Do introverts have an equivalent experience?  Do they occasionally need social time to share their deep reflections, connect with one person they trust, or ask for help from someone who can help them get what they need?  If I have this right, what is important is that they be able to choose.

Perhaps this is why power-sharing is so important, at work and at home.  We don’t entirely get to prescribe that people should behave one particular way at one precise time.  And we don’t get to choose which part of a person we want.  We can only invite the whole person into the room, and go with the flow.

Think about that during your spare time on Sunday morning.

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