In my youth, I was friends with someone who I now believe — with the 20/20 vision of hindsight — to be an ESTP personality type. A classic entrepreneur, my friend was bold, direct, a fan of taking risks, box-defying and incredibly sociable. His superpower was turning every mundane gathering into a party.
Some other things I noticed about my friend:
- He took up all the space in the room
- He had poor listening skills, always growing impatient with other people’s problems
- When it came to the emotional stuff, he preferred to keep things silly and move right onto the next fun-packed adventure
- He operated on his own time and didn’t care that he kept people waiting
- He was supremely self-confident, and did not shy away from shameless bragging
- He was the best ‘party’ friend I could have ever hoped for...but there were so many deeper things we never talked about.
Another thing I noticed? People adored him and were drawn to him like moths to a flame.
So how come I, a respectful, organized and unassuming INTJ, am the one who gets called arrogant?
People label what they don't understand
An INTJ, by doing almost nothing, is labelled as arrogant as a defining trait of her personality while an ESTP, by openly bragging, is adored by almost everyone. How do we explain that?
The answer depends on your definition of arrogant — and whether you think that cocky on the outside automatically means that you’re cocky on the inside.
The classic dictionary definition of arrogant is “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one's own importance or abilities.” I’ve underlined the word exaggerated because for most INTJs, the opposite is true. The INTJs I’ve met all know exactly what the limits of their competence are — they know what they can do, and what they cannot do. In fact, we’re so acutely aware of all the gaps in our knowledge and skill sets that we will never profess to be an expert on something unless we truly are. There is nothing exaggerated about it at all.
Trust me when I say that if an INTJ believes he is an expert in a topic, then he is an expert in the topic. He can talk confidently about this topic because he has researched and analyzed it to death — chasing down every bit of minutiae until he is the most knowledgeable person in the room. I once knew an INTJ who was genius level on bees and beekeeping, but he wasn’t arrogant about it at all. If anything, he was incredibly humble; excited to share his knowledge to help people while admitting there was still so much to learn.
What many people don’t realize is that for every time we talk confidently about a subject, there are 10 other subjects that we’re reluctant to talk about. Whatever our competence is in these areas, we know that there are smarter people in the room. We don’t want to look stupid, so we absolutely keep our mouths shut about stuff we don’t know.
But it comes across as arrogant!
An INTJ who goes around saying, “I am so much smarter than you, muwhaha!” is an arrogant a-hole. An INTJ who stands so firm in her beliefs that she will not even listen to opposing points of view is also an arrogant a-hole. And so is the INTJ who looks down on people they believe are inferior.
But what about saying, “No, that’s not right” directly in someone’s face (because it’s not right)? Or telling a coworker, “To be honest, this would have worked out better if you’d have gone with the Plan B I recommended”? It’s comments like these that tend to earn INTJs the arrogant label, rather than anything out-and-out biggety.
The problem is, an INTJ may be more likely to say things in an arrogant-sounding way because we’re hardwired to be blunt with our communication. Consider this:
- Our Extraverted Thinking (Te) means we are naturally inclined to share what we know with others. We are also inclined to judge others for their incompetence, which gives us an air of superiority over them. It’s this combination that leads us to being typed as arrogant know-it-alls.
- We lead with Introverted Intuition (Ni), and that means we ‘see’ answers quicker than most but can't explain how or why we ‘know’ something. Imagine how it looks to others when you foot-stampingly insist that something is right or true when you can’t exactly explain it!
- Our Introverted feeling (Fi) tells us we're subjectively competent and clever but it’s an underdeveloped function. Unless we’ve done a lot of inner work, then our smarts become something we’re sensitive about and quick to defend. Immature INTJs may use arrogant language as a defense mechanism to hide their insecurities, because they’re actually feeling underprepared and stupid at that moment.
- INTJs are one of the more self-sufficient personality types, in the sense that we don't require validation from others to confirm what we believe in. We have the courage of our convictions, and others may have a tough time talking us around to their point of view – hence the labels stubborn and arrogant.
- Feelings, sigh. Here we go again. Tact is not a strong point for INTJs. Sometimes, you will say something obviously wrong and I will dismiss it instantly. You may perceive that as the usual INTJ arrogance. But honestly? It’s because I don’t know how to be responsible for the way my words make you feel. As long as I am not being willfully rude or obnoxious; as long as I’m trying to act in good faith and be a decent human being; then what else am I supposed to do to stop you taking my words as a personal attack?
In my head, saying something like it is (with facts to prove it!) is far less arrogant than demanding that everyone talks to you in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. Yet INTJs are expected to live in a world where we constantly have to check ourselves to avoid coming across as snappy – a world where the truth is not as important as how we make other people feel.
That’s partly why we get frustrated with the arrogant label, because it really isn’t about us at all.
Should we allow arrogance to define the INTJ personality?
The bottom line here is that INTJs speak from a position of competence, not arrogance, but they may express their ideas in a way that comes across as arrogant. Real arrogance and what people perceive as arrogant can be very different.
But even if arrogance were a fundamental characteristic of this personality type, should we be defining INTJs so strongly by one of their weaknesses? Especially when the label comes from how we’re perceived, rather than how we actually are?
Personally, I would like to see more discussion of what’s going on behind the label — our inner struggles, vulnerabilities, insecurities, and all the ways we're trying to make a good faith effort to be nice even if does come out of our mouths differently to how people expect. Classifying these complex behaviors as ‘arrogance’ is lazy. It weakens the conversation.