In many cultures, societal norms create a preference for certain character traits over others. Growing up, I learned that respectful silence was valued because it indicated that I was an eager listener and student, one who acknowledged the wisdom of one’s elders and wouldn’t presume the importance of my own opinions. Sitting upright was a mark of elegance and attentiveness, while slouching was a clear sign of laziness, sloppiness, and carelessness. However, not all silence was created equal: a timid, hesitant silence was deplored, indicating to me that one should somehow (mysteriously) display a measure of confidence and self-assurance, even while saying nothing. So I would smile, try not to hide behind my parent’s legs in every uncomfortable situation, and, at my grandfather’s insistence, sit up straight.
In today’s world, where personal image has developed into the personal brand, the emphasis on our personalities is as strong as ever. We retain a fascination with personality tests, introducing ourselves on dating apps and social media with four-letter acronyms assigned by the Briggs-Meyers’ test to assess compatibility, or outlining our career trajectories in high school career counseling offices based on proprietary algorithms that analyze our answers to some thirty-odd questions. Many personality tests, popularized in the last century, have been more recently shown by psychologists and researchers to amount to nothing more than bunk, yet we still rely on them to inform some of life’s most important decisions. To be sure, there is a convenience that comes along with packaging out personalities into a bin or a box, but this also makes it easy to rank personality types into lists by preference—and therefore, to rank the people around us, too.
The desire to shape someone’s personality often emerges in the decisions parents make regarding their children, even before they are born. For a brief period of time, it was common to name one’s children Harmony, Grace, and Felicity, out of hope that they would display these valued characteristics, and in essence, live up to their name. While that fad has largely fallen out of fashion, parents-to-be often dismiss a name because they knew someone unpleasant who had that same name, and we still occasionally consult websites (shoddy or otherwise) to figure out what our names mean. In Chinese culture in particular, where the characters in a name not only have their own meanings but also have homophones with separate meanings, the selection of a name often requires consulting with multiple family members to ensure the name will be fortuitous.
Once a child enters school, it becomes almost too easy to compare one personality to another. In American public school systems, parent-teacher conferences have been a primary means to communicate over a student’s progress in the classroom, but have gradually transformed into personality assessments, occurring as early as pre-kindergarten and continuing throughout primary and elementary school years. I’ve heard stories from colleagues, whose children are still toddlers, spending an hour meeting with teachers who have carefully documented instances in which a child exhibited shyness or selfishness, timidity or tenaciousness, and then prescribed a list of things to try at home to inch them away from the extremes and help them fall somewhere in the middle of the scale.
Clearly, some personality traits are valued more than others, yet as for most things, too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. At some point along the way, we learn that we should be studious but not holed away, outgoing but not promiscuous, honest but not straightforwardly rude. We are told: laugh, but not too loudly, at risk of sounding uncouth, and not too often, lest you find yourself giggling in awkward or inappropriate situations. Show your anger, unless you want to be deemed a pushover and taken advantage of, but not too much, unless you want to appear vicious, violent, and frightening.
It is strange, then, that despite societal pressures to be a socially-acceptable human beings who are blandly pleasant in a vanilla sort of way, our heroes (historical, contemporary, fictional, or otherwise) are often quite the opposite. We admire courageous revolutionaries and rebellious warriors who bucked convention and class distinctions in the name of equality, and detectives and spies whose quirks ruin their relationships with almost everyone yet lead them invariably to justice. We try and emulate the firsts, whether the first woman or the first person of color, who fought against everyone who told them, “no, you can’t,” to say, “yes, I can.” Most, if not all of them, had to have rubbed some people the wrong way with their unrelenting voracity, yet this didn’t stop them from becoming figures that are larger than life.
Recently, I encountered a group of young women whose presence I found to be intensely irritable. To me, they preened too much as they flicked their hair and fluffed their bangs, and their laughter, excessive in both quantity and volume, grated on my nerves. Even the smallest occurrence prompted an unnecessary flurry of delighted squealing and overreaction. Initially, I dismissed them as superficial, frivolous, and shallow, and wondered how they could be so unaware and inconsiderate of the people around them. Only later did I realize that at that moment, they had looked as if they hadn’t a care in the world, that they probably valued more how they felt about themselves than how others felt about them, and that they had looked happier than most people I had seen in a long time. When had unbridled laughter become a source of annoyance? Isn’t happiness supposed to be infectious? Somewhere along the way, on my personal scale of valued personality traits, I must have demoted the bubbly, the excited, and the childish in favor of the self-controlled, the composed, and the aloof; how I appeared to others must have taken priority over how I actually felt.
Of course, there are a lot of ways to analyze the situation. I could have been in a bad mood because of a long day, or I could have simply been hungry and cranky. However, the instance was a reminder that we don’t live to impress others, and that our actions aren’t performed with the intention of being categorized by a personality test. So go ahead: laugh out loud, be a little goofy, and enjoy the happiness that accompanies it.