Communication Differences

How do you tell an extroverted actuary from an introverted actuary? Gigi Zhe Li

Most readers likely have heard some variation of the joke, “How do you tell an extroverted actuary from an introverted actuary? The extroverted actuary is the one looking at your shoes rather than their own shoes when they’re talking to you.”

While it’s no secret that our profession tends to attract introverts, what precisely does that mean? And, in a world where communication is an increasingly important part of the actuarial toolkit, how can introverts and extroverts hone their communication skills? This article explores those questions.

Introversion and Extroversion

The concepts of extroversion and introversion are familiar to many of us, especially those who have completed a Myers-Briggs (MBTI) assessment, a personality test based on a theory of personality types or traits introduced in psychology in the 1920s by Carl G. Jung. The MBTI assessment distinguishes between extroversion and introversion by the defined attitudes people use to direct their energy. Extroverts are drawn to external stimuli and recharge by being around people and participating in group activities. Meanwhile, introverts are drawn to the inner worlds of thoughts and reflections and recharge by being in solitude.

A common misconception is to equate introversion with shyness. The distinction between introversion and shyness is that shyness is instigated by the fear of negative social judgment, whereas introversion is the preference for quiet environments with low stimulation.

In real life, everyone is unique. Extroversion and introversion involve a spectrum, with some of us falling in between as various degrees of ambiverts. Some traits and preferences that are often associated with extroversion and introversion can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Traits of Introversion and Extroversion

Extroversion Introversion
Act first and reflect later Reflect first and then act
Learn best through doing or discussing Learn best through observing and reflecting
Tend to talk more than listen Tend to listen more than talk
Prefer open-space work environments and brainstorming out loud in groups Appreciate quiet space for concentration and develop ideas internally before sharing them
Enjoy socializing in larger groups of people and are adept at making small talk and forming connections Less comfortable with making small talk but prefer to connect one-on-one and have deeper conversations
Energized by external stimuli and easily bored and demotivated if there are not enough stimuli Easily overstimulated and exhausted by external stimuli such as loud music, big crowds and fast-changing scenes
Motivated to seek rewards and achievements Less sensitive to rewards and better at delaying gratification

Putting things into perspective, imagine yourself in the following situations at work:

  • You just spent a productive day collaborating on a new initiative with coworkers. You enjoyed working with the team, and the initiative is something you are passionate about. At the end of the day, do you: (A) look forward to cultivating the newly formed bonds and suggest the group go for a happy hour or (B) look forward to decompressing alone after a long group discussion?
  • Do you prefer: (A) the type of project that allows you to collaborate and interact with others or (B) the type of project that allows you to dive in and immerse yourself in complex analytics and problem-solving?
  • Do you: (A) enjoy small talk when first meeting someone at work or (B) prefer to discuss the work content first, and then only when relationships and trust are established do you feel more comfortable chatting casually?

A preference for option A is associated with extroverted temperaments, and option B is associated with introverted temperaments.

Social Influences and Biological Makeup

Why do people exhibit such different temperaments? Much research has been conducted attempting to identify physiological origins and social impacts.

In a series of longitudinal studies launched in 1989,1 psychologist Jerome Kagan examined how infants responded to various external stimuli, such as listening to tape-recorded voices and balloons popping and smelling the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs. The group of 500 infants in the study exhibited wildly distinct reactions. Twenty percent reacted strongly to the stimuli by crying and pumping their arms and legs violently, while 40% remained calm and unreactive. Kagan called the former group “high-reactive” and the latter group “low-reactive.” The remaining 40% fell between these two extremes. Kagan followed the children through adolescence, and quite counterintuitively, the high-reactive infants tended to become more quiet and cautious teenagers. In contrast, the low-reactive infants tended to become more relaxed and confident.

As it turned out, the amygdala—an almond-shaped mass in the brain that controls emotions and processes information such as threats—plays a critical part in how one reacts to external stimuli. Kagan’s study revealed that the amygdala of the high-reactive infants was especially sensitive and that, in turn, these individuals responded vigilantly to new things. These children were more likely to prefer low-stimulus surroundings and grow into more reserved and thoughtful adults. Conversely, the low-reactive infants had a less sensitive amygdala and were likely to grow into someone who seeks stimulating environments and eventually becomes more adventurous and outgoing. Kagan’s study evidenced the connection between biological origins and temperaments.

Inarguably, however, social influences in our upbringing also play a major part in forming our temperaments. Studies have found that Western nations are more extroverted and Eastern nations are more introverted.

I can attest to the startling cultural differences with my own experience. I was brought up in China, where desks in elementary classrooms are lined up meticulously in singular columns facing the front of the room. This promotes attentiveness to the teacher’s lecturing and discourages chatting among the students. When the teacher asked the class a question, I would raise my hand and wait patiently to be called upon, and when I did get the rare chance to speak, I knew I’d better have the correct thing to say. And I sure did because I had rehearsed it many times in my head while waiting and anticipating my turn.

When I moved with my family to Canada in fifth grade, the way classrooms were set up and classes were conducted were among the many things that came as a shock. Tables were set up in pods with five or six desks facing each other, seemingly positioned randomly in the classroom. Students were not only allowed to speak up during class but encouraged to do so. I often would listen to my classmates avidly expressing their ideas and opinions, and while I pondered how much of what was said was nonsense and the answer I had in my head was better, I already had missed the moment to speak up. It was almost that the Chinese classroom allowed too much time to think and few chances to speak, while the Canadian classroom allowed too little time to think but plenty of freedom to speak.

Had I been raised in Western society, would I have exhibited a different temperament type? Or was it my biological makeup that made me think twice before I spoke? Undoubtedly, there is no simple answer to the nature vs. nurture question.

Introverts in an ‘Extrovert Ideal’

Research has shown that about one-third of the population are introverts. Do you think the actuarial community reflects the same proportion?

We are a self-selected group of professionals with keen interests in mathematics and statistics and an appetite for solving complex business issues using technical and analytical tools. Becoming an actuary also requires passing a rigorous series of exams, an effort that entails thousands of hours of studying. We find ourselves studying in solitude and forfeiting social scenes more often than most twenty-somethings would tolerate.

In my opinion, the proportion of introverts likely is higher than one-third within the actuarial profession. Perhaps the qualities it takes to be a successful actuary correlate more closely with introverts’ natural strengths. Perhaps people with introverted temperaments tend to find actuarial groundwork satisfying to their intellectual appetite, and maybe they also find it easier to study for hours in solitude than their extroverted peers.

On the other hand, introverts often are perceived as quiet or unassertive, risk-averse and as having a harder time speaking up. In the United States, one of the most extroverted nations in my opinion, it can be a particular struggle for introverts to be heard. The economic upswing in the early 20th century presented a societal turning point where people moved from the countryside to big cities. Along with that emerged a new ideal of a successful American.

“We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight … rather than solitary and reflective,” wrote Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.2 She also wrote that Western society tends to reward typical extroverted behaviors. This includes perceiving someone who is more vocal and dominating in conversations as a better communicator. However, when it comes to effective communication, is quantity more important than quality? Is form more important than substance?

As actuaries, we communicate complex business issues to different stakeholders as part of our daily work. In fact, the capstone module in the Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA) exam curriculum is the Decision-Making and Communication (DMAC) module, which focuses on written and oral communication skills and decision-making skills for solving business problems. Actuaries must be able to communicate technical findings and business implications effectively, and they must be able to impactfully direct business decisions that are based on analytical groundwork. It might be true that introverts have an easier start in the actuarial profession, but as we progress, we all need to be effective communicators.

Communication is an Acquired Skill

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, public speaking is the No. 1 fear in America, affecting three-quarters of the population. To some, this means speaking to a large audience, while to others, this also can mean presenting to a small group.

No one is born a marathon runner, but almost anyone can run a marathon with proper and diligent training. Likewise, the ability to be great communicators is not inborn and does not belong solely to extroverts. “In fact, it often pays to be quiet and gracious and to listen more than talk,” wrote Cain.3 Introverts not only have the potential to be great communicators, but they already inherently possess some natural strengths to be them.

Like running a marathon, communication skills can be acquired through training and practice. In his lecture “How to Speak,”4 former MIT professor Patrick Winston presented speaking skills using the following formula:

The quality of communication is a function of K, P and T in decreasing order of importance, where K stands for how much knowledge you have, P stands for how much you practice with that knowledge and T stands for your inherent talent. “Notice how the T is very small,” Winston emphasized, “and what really matters is what you know.”

His lecture has been a tradition at MIT for more than 40 years, presenting several tools and examples to improve speaking skills. A recording of this lecture is publicly available, and I encourage you to watch it. I think the way Winston presented his talk is equally worthy of studying as the content he delivered. He was not an animated presenter by any means, and his tone did not vary much throughout. He did not exhibit the type of exuberance or charisma of a typical extroverted presenter. And yet, he captivated the audience and delivered his ideas effectively by focusing on the contents and using the appropriate presentation tools.

In Cain’s book, she offered eight practical public speaking tips for introverts.5 However, I think these tips can be helpful to anyone.

  1. For many speakers—especially for introverts—preparation is key.
  2. Think about what your particular audience wants to hear.
  3. If you haven’t spoken publicly in a while and feel rusty, watch videos of speakers where some of the filming is taken from the speaker’s vantage point, where you can see what it’s like to face the audience.
  4. Similarly, visit the room where you’ll be speaking if you can.
  5. When you listen to a great speaker or hear someone mention one, get a speech transcript and study it.
  6. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a speaker and accentuate the positive.
  7. At the same time, public speaking is a performance, and that’s a good thing, even if you’re not a natural actor.
  8. Smile at your audience as they enter the room and when you begin speaking.

The Authenticity Paradox

So, we know that communication skills can be learned and that there is no lack of resources to employ. Should we try to flex our communication style, meaning to present ourselves differently depending on the situation?

The ability to do so is a concept introduced by psychologist Mark Snyder during the 1970s called “self-monitoring.” People with high self-monitoring abilities are more capable of modifying the way they present themselves in different social settings. They respond to social cues and can adjust their appearance to the outside world regardless of their internal feelings.

Conversely, another term that gained popularity and has been emphasized in the business world is “authenticity.” Being authentic, often valued as an important personal and leadership trait, means being comfortable with yourself and acting according to your true inner values.

“The authenticity paradox,” said London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra in a TED Talk,6 is “when you find yourself facing a choice between being yourself or doing what it takes to be effective. You need to pick one or the other.” Perhaps we’ve all come to this crossroads at some point. What can be more authentic than letting data, trends and numbers convey themselves? Isn’t presenting anything else just storytelling and fluff? However, how often does the technical brilliance of exactly what makes us great actuaries get in the way of our ability to communicate with those who don’t have the same technical training?

“The most common way we define authenticity is being true to yourself. But that raises the question: True to which self? Your old self, today’s self or your future self? And if it’s your old self or today’s self, does that mean being authentic condemns you to being as you’ve always been? Of course not. Often, we’ll be true to a self that we want to become or an aspirational self,” said Ibarra. “You have a choice about what definition of authenticity you’ll hold yourself to.”


As an actuarial career progresses, the person working in a corner cubicle crunching numbers needs to grow into someone who can convey business issues and effectively drive business impacts and results. In that evolution, there are new skills to be learned. But, as Ibarra said, “learning means doing stuff that doesn’t feel very comfortable because you don’t know how to do it yet.”

You possess some natural strengths to be an effective communicator, whether you’re an extrovert or introvert. Honing your communication skills begins by understanding your own temperaments and natural strengths and weaknesses.

Gigi Zhe Li, FSA, MAAA, is a senior manager at Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) and is based out of Boston. The views reflected in this article are the author’s views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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