One of the common mistakes is to confuse introversion with terms like shyness, dorkiness, or antisocial. While these things often go together they are not synonyms.
The difference between extraversion and introversion is about two things: the level of activity they need to be comfortable and how they gather and burn mental energy.
Comparing activity levels between extraverts and introverts. Stylized and exaggerated.
Extraverts have higher tolerance for activity. They can handle, indeed need, more stimulating environments. Social activity actually gives them energy. Their batteries are recharged by the stimulation and social activity. An absence of social activity or less stimulating environments actually drains the extravert’s battery. A day of quiet reading would leave them restless and bored. Despite the lack of activity they may well feel drained.
Introverts have higher tolerance for solitude. They can handle, indeed need, less stimulating environments. Social activity actually drains them energy. Their batteries are recharged by quiet time and a break from social activity. An absence of quiet time drains the introvert’s battery. A day full of activity, meetings, and socializing would leave them drained. A quiet day of working alone will invigorate them.
None of this means that introverts hate people or social life. Most introverts enjoy good and healthy social lives. It is just that their tolerance for continuous social engagement is lower. It is just that they prefer less stimulating environments.
Introverts are not necessarily shy (afraid of people). Introverts are not necessarily anti-social (dislike people). Introverts are not necessarily dorky (unable to relate to people). Introverts just find social activities tiring.
Each person will have a level of activity they find comfortable. Below that level they will feel bored and restless, above that level they will feel stressed. There is however a level of activity that is comfortably stimulating. Introverts will feel stress at a lower level of activity, but will avoid boredom during quieter times. Extraverts have a higher tolerance for stimulating environments but will get stressed during quieter periods.
Example activity levels of extraverts and introverts. Stylised and exagerated.
A day of quite reading is comfortable for the introvert. It is just above his threshold for boredom. He might take a break and phone a friend but would not be bored or restless. For the extravert this is painful. It is deep down into his boredom range. He would need to take several phone or walkabout breaks. Even with those breaks he would be restless. To him it would be a long day.
A busy office might be pleasantly stimulating for the introvert. He has the chance for social activity but can retreat to his office or cube when he needs quiet time. Even at this level the extravert might be bored. He might wonder why there is “no fun here.” He will probably still be a bit restless unless his job requires lots of telephone contacts.
A crowded bar might be right at the top of an introvert’s comfort level. He will enjoy the music, the buzz, and being with friends. He might not want to do this every night but will find the evening tolerable from a stress point of view. He will still find the evening more tiring than the extravert. The extravert, unless the bar is very busy and loud, might still be bored. He will probably be looking for a more “happening” place. He may find it tolerable but would really be happier in a louder joint.
A loud club is well into the introvert’s stress zone. The level of activity is beyond where he is comfortable. The extravert is now in his element. All that noise and activity charges up his batteries. This is a pleasantly stimulating level of activity for the extravert.
Update: September 21, 2009
Turns out some else said it all before and better. An article called All Introversion is Not the Same from the Psychology Today blog led me to another article Caring for Your Introvert. That second article (from 2003) says a lot of what I say here. I feel so unoriginal.