I’ve never met a personality test I didn’t want to take. Be it on BuzzFeed, in a crumpled magazine in the waiting room of the dentist’s office or of the Myers-Briggs variety, I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work filling out those multiple choice questions with equal to greater seriousness than I had taking the SAT. Trivial at best and narcissistic at worst, these erroneous evaluators of identity are my longest-running guilty pleasure. (That, and faithfully tuning in to The Bachelor every Monday night since 2002).
My fascination with personality—my own, in particular—began in elementary school, where I would use our 10 minutes of free browsing time to scour the web for articles with titles like “What Your Zodiac Sign Says About You” that detailed the virtues and vices of my astrological designation. I would copy and paste the descriptions I liked best into a Word document, carefully curating a profile of the person I could one day expect to be.
Although I still checked my horoscope from time to time and took the occasional online quiz, in my first semester of college I graduated to the big leagues of those with an avid interest in identity, leaving star signs behind in favor of Psych 101.
One day, written in large letters on either end of the whiteboard were the words: “Introvert” and “Extrovert.” Although vaguely familiar with the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, I had never given them much thought. Extroverts are loud, introverts are quiet. What else was there to know?
But as the lecture progressed, I began mentally checking off the more nuanced traits associated with introversion that seemed to match my personality remarkably well.
- Mentally “recharge” by being alone? Check. Not many people I know share my deep love of a solo grocery shop or movie date.
- Have a constantly running internal monologue? Check. I often have to remind myself to contribute to conversation in group settings rather than just listen and observe.
- Dread prolonged social interaction? God, yes. I’ve hidden in my fair share of bathrooms at parties and artfully avoided co-workers in public to circumvent small talk, I screen calls like it’s my job, and the words “networking event” make my blood run cold.
Although I did have my outgoing moments, I wrote them off as a collective fluke, and by the end of class had self-diagnosed myself as an introvert. I left with a bounce in my step, all too happy to embrace this new definition of what it meant to be me.
But a few months ago, I stumbled across a third group. Looking back, perhaps I should have taken note that the words on the whiteboard were purposely spaced with plenty of room in between.
Ambivert: an individual who exhibits a combination of extroverted and introverted behaviors.
I spent the next few hours reading everything I could find online (my first stop admittedly being all four of BuzzFeed’s quizzes dedicated to the term, like this one). Though less prominent than the polarizing classifications of introvert and extrovert, the designation isn’t “new,” having been originally introduced in 1927 by social scientist Kimball Young. The concept of ambiversion gained traction in 2013 after Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, published a study in Psychological Science suggesting that ambiverts make for better salespeople than extroverts, given their adaptive personality.
A piece published in 2015 in The Wall Street Journal lists defining characteristics of ambiversion as social flexibility, situational adaptability, intuitive communication and moderate mood.
I found myself identifying with all the hallmark traits of an ambivert, but this time around I didn’t see the discovery as a potential change in identity. I saw it as freedom from a label that I’d let dictate my actions—or inactions, in many cases—far too often. Hindsight being 20-20, introversion had become a catchall justification to avoid doing things outside of my comfort zone, from applying for leadership roles (introverts prefer to work alone) to social and professional events (introverts don’t like small talk). Now, I welcomed the idea of a middle ground, and accepted that perhaps I wasn’t just adept as passing for extroverted when the need arose.
While 6 times out of 10 I’m hiding out in the bathroom, the other four I’m the life of the party. I usually prefer to people-watch while traveling, but often find myself thoroughly enjoying a conversation with the stranger sitting next to me at the gate. I tend to prefer working alone, but enjoy collaborating with the right group of individuals. I’ve even had fun playing an icebreaker game (but that was just the one time).
It’s not always easy to know which side to lead with. The ability to read a situation and be self-aware enough to know what will make me happiest in that moment is a work in progress I doubt will end anytime soon. But the uncertainty about where I stand on this formerly rigid spectrum has sparked a rush of empowerment I hadn’t realized was missing.
At home, I’m more comfortable communicating whether I’m in the mood to decompress or be social—I can’t expect anyone to magically interpret my energy level. I also make sure my weekends are a good balance of alone time and activities. Too much of one or the other leaves me feeling either a Cast Away-level of isolation, or like I’d better start paddling toward that island to avoid any further “small talk.”
At work, it’s all about knowing my limits. Some days I don’t mind the constant stream of co-workers stopping by my desk to chat on their way to the kitchen; others it’s my personal version of hell. On the latter, I wear headphones (with or without music). I won’t automatically say no to post-work happy hour, but will politely excuse myself if by 5 p.m. I feel an intense need to go immediately home and binge watch The West Wing.
Wherever I am, I now consider the words introvert and extrovert verbs rather than adjectives, and only call on my ambivert affiliation when I need a reminder to trust in my own adaptability. Because the real advantage to being an ambivert is not being defined by anything at all.
Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She spends off-hours scouting new restaurants and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.