Dictionaries Get Introverts Wrong, and It’s Time to Fix That

An introvert reflects on the dictionary definition of introversion.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re an introvert. Or you know someone who is. There’s also a good chance that you’ve been misunderstood as an introvert. And while I’m not usually one to point fingers and lay blame, in this article, I’m going to.

Because there’s a reason we’ve been misunderstood. Well, there are probably countless reasons that introversion is misunderstood. But one of those reasons, which is quite significant, is that we introverts have been given a raw deal by… drum roll please… the dictionary.

How Dictionaries Get Introverts Wrong

If you haven’t looked up the dictionary definition of “introvert” lately, then here it is, from the Oxford dictionary, in all its, err, “glory.” This is also the definition that pops up when you type “introvert” into the Google search bar:

Introvert

“A shy, reticent person.”

When I read this, I felt as though I’d been kicked in the teeth. I absolutely one hundred percent identify as an introvert. But this? Shy? Reticent (not being able to express your thoughts or feelings easily)?

This I am not.

Unfortunately, the word shy is often used interchangeably with introvert — but they are not the same. Shy people often want interaction with others but hold back, usually due to fear. Introverts have a preference for being alone.

Surely, I thought, there must be other versions with better definitions. So I tried the Collins Dictionary.

Introvert

“An introvert is a quiet, shy person who finds it difficult to talk to people.”

Ugh. I am none of those things. Yes, I like quiet, but I’m not really a quiet person. And I don’t have any problem talking to other people. I prefer quiet, deep conversations with good friends, but I don’t necessarily find it hard to talk with anyone.

The Danger of Misdefining Introversion

Our dictionaries, whether it’s the Oxford, Collins, or another version, give meaning to the words that give us language. We rely on them to help teach our children, and they’re an integral part of learning and understanding any language. As a writer, I often rely on a dictionary and thesaurus to make sure I get my points across accurately. I had assumed those dictionary authors had it sorted.

And I guess for the most part, they do, but when it comes to the definition of “introvert,” I have to disagree. I think they have it wrong. And this wrong definition is a major contributor to the world’s misunderstanding of introverts.

It turns out that the word introvert (as a verb) has been around since the mid 17th century. And it’s original definition was more congruent with what we now consider more accurate: “To turn one’s thoughts inwards.” It wasn’t until 1918 that the word was used as a noun by psychologist Carl Jung and defined more correctly as “one whose thoughts and feelings are directed toward oneself.”

But somehow along the way, the definition has strayed and morphed into what most dictionaries have today.

This isn’t the first time someone has raised their hand in protest. Back in 2014, Jenn Granneman, founder of Introvert, Dear, wrote a piece addressed to Google, petitioning for them and other dictionaries to change their definition.

Suffice it to say, there it remains. A horrid reminder of what a large portion of the world thinks we introverts are. Shy and reticent. We can hardly blame them when this is what they’ve been taught. And what their parents and grandparents have also been taught. They’ve been conditioned to think of introverts in this negative and inaccurate way.

And this doesn’t just mean that introverts have to deal with some personal misconceptions about themselves. When society as a whole doesn’t have the right definition of introversion, it means many people end up living lives that actually go against their natures. Before I learned about introversion, I often felt like I had to “fake” being an outgoing, always-on-the-go person. I thought there was something wrong with my needs for quiet and solitude.

But when I learned about introversion, everything finally made sense.

A Better Definition of ‘Introvert’

A psychology-based definition of “introvert” would be a far more accurate one. This description on the official Myers & Briggs Foundation website is great:

“I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.”

Introvert, Dear’s own preferred definition of introversion is simple:

“Someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts tend to feel drained after socializing and regain their energy by spending time alone.”

While psychology-based definitions are referenced in some dictionaries, they are done so as a side note, rather than the predominant definition. So clearly getting this changed would be an excellent start.

What Can You Do?

Getting dictionary definitions changed is just the start of what needs to be a worldwide shift in the understanding of what it means to be an introvert. And this shift will begin with more awareness.

If you identify as an introvert, make your family and friends aware of what introversion really means. A great conversation starter might be to simply ask them what they think an introvert is. You can then talk them through a more accurate description by using yourself as an example.

What you may actually get is another introvert comrade. Many people don’t realize they’re introverted until they understand what the term really means. Additionally, while we’re born with introvert traits, they operate on a scale, and may even intensify over time. (According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet, it’s not unusual for people to act more introverted as they get older.) I identified most fully with introversion after having my two children.

This doesn’t seem like much. Changing the predominant worldview on introversion seems like a mammoth task. It is.

But every single one of us has a part to play in this revolution. Every conversation you have, pointing to a more accurate understanding of introverts, is part of this important movement.

Let’s do this! 

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Emma Scheib gained her Masters in Psychology in 2013 and has since worked full-time in corporate research positions for government agencies. She recently gave up her "dream job" to pursue being a (happier) mum, living a slower pace of life. She is also dipping her toes back into her long lost love, creative writing. She writes regularly over at Simple Slow & Lovely, and you can also connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.