It is 2015, which apparently means that everyone — presidential candidates included — will at some point be subjected to this one particular question: Are you an introvert or an extrovert? On Friday, this was part of a “lightning round” in the Democratic candidates forum, hosted by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Hillary Clinton answered by calling herself an “intro-extrovert”: Sometimes she likes being around people, and sometimes she prefers to be alone.
On the one hand, sure, this is an expert politician’s non-answer, because Clinton likely knows that there are ways to read unflattering attributes into either option. Colloquially, extrovert suggests that you’re pushy and aggressive, while introvert implies you’re a “low-energy” wallflower. But then again, there’s another way to think about Clinton’s answer. Maybe she really isn’t an introvert or an extrovert; for that matter, maybe you aren’t, either. If you’ve read the definitions for introversion and extroversion and never fully identified with either, that’s likely because most people are ambiverts — that is, their personality lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
In a 2013 paper in Psychological Science titled “The Ambivert Advantage,” psychologist Adam Grant wrote, “In the world population, levels of extraversion typically follow the shape of a bell curve, with most people falling somewhere in the middle,” suggesting that “most people are ambiverted rather than introverted or extroverted.”
In that report, Grant recounts his study of more than 300 salespeople at a call center, which found that the ambiverts were responsible for more sales than those who were more highly extroverted or introverted. Ambiverts, according to Grant’s study, brought in an average of $154.77 per hour, whereas introverts made an average of $120.10; surprisingly, the sales numbers for the extroverts — those people-people for whom, it would seem, sales should come naturally — were only slightly better than their introverted peers, bringing in $125.19 on average. Over the three months Grant tracked this group, each ambivert brought in an average of $16,393.05 in revenue, a figure that was 24 percent higher than the introverts’ sales and 32 percent higher than the extroverts’.
It’s not hard to imagine an explanation for these results. Ambiverts can tap into their social side when necessary, but they also are perfectly comfortable shutting up and listening. “Compared with introverts, ambiverts are more likely to display the requisite levels of enthusiasm and assertiveness to stimulate customer interest in products and services and convert this interest into sales,” writes Grant, who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the author of the 2013 bestseller Give and Take. “At the same time, ambiverts may strike a balance between talking and listening, avoiding the risks that extroverts face of failing to understand customers’ needs and appearing instrumental or pushy.”
Grant’s study specifically looked at salespeople and ambiversion, but it’s not hard to think of other instances where knowing when to turn the extroversion up or down would serve you well. An ambivert would be at ease in a large group or a small one, and would be comfortable meeting new people or spending time alone. There is unquestionable value in both ways of being, but — at least in some contexts — the most successful people might be the ones who know how to be both.