Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Personality differences across the world

When you travel a lot, as we do, to different parts of the world, encountering people from widely divergent cultures, one might think that you would also come across personalities widely different from those you find in your own culture. However, experience has taught me that this is not the case, and that the divergences in personality that you are familiar with at home also occur in other cultures. Case in point: it is no different in Asian cultures.

We are in Korea, having come here to attend a conference and give seminars. With the academic stuff in Seoul behind us, we are spending the rest of our time here climbing their beautiful mountains and walking ridge-trails in what is the most beautiful season for this kind of thing – Autumn, with its rich canvas of gold, brown, orange, red and orange leaves. And – hiking being a national pastime in Korea – everywhere you go you walk past hundreds of Koreans in their hiking gear, either coming the other way or walking in the same direction as yourself.

Being sociable creatures, my partner and I tend to greet Koreans when we make eye contact, saying “Annyeonghaseyo” (“Hello”, in Korean), and sometimes getting the same greeting in return. Because I have always been a keen observer of human behaviour, I am struck by the marked differences among the ways that these individuals respond. There are those whose response is a non-response insofar as they resolutely avoid eye contact, their facial features speaking volumes – they look straight ahead, their lips drawn tightly, transmitting their unwillingness, or incapacity, or both, to exchange a greeting. They would probably feel great, living alone on an island. Let us call them the “islanders”.

Then there are those who look you straight in the eye without flinching, but don’t make any effort to greet you, and without any sign that it is because they feel shy. They just could not be bothered to make contact, perhaps because you are clearly a westerner, or perhaps because they feel self-sufficient under any circumstances. We shall name them the “independents”. Those who look you in the eye and show signs – like a faint smile – of responding affirmatively, but not quite managing a verbal greeting, are the shy, diffident ones. With a bit of encouragement they would overcome their insecurity and make contact. They are the “diffidents”.

And then there are the outgoing, confident ones, who could be divided into two groups – those who are friendly and confident, but not overbearing, and the boisterous, domineering, overbearing ones (who actually undermine the meaning of friendly through their pompousness). The quietly confident, friendly ones shall be named the “confidents”, and the overbearingly friendly ones the “overconfidents”.

The point I am making is that these makeshift categories of personality types I have cobbled together here – which could be further refined, of course – are found in every culture and society. In poststructuralist terms one might say that these categories apply to people universally, even if the particular manifestation of the “typical” characteristics in each individual is unique. Not two overbearing individuals are overbearing in exactly the same way, even if you can recognise the overbearing “type”. Poststructuralism has taught us to think the universal and the particular together, to do justice to countervailing aspects of phenomena, including personality differences.

On this trip we have encountered a striking example of someone belonging to the “confidents” and someone belonging to the “overconfidents”. We were making our way up towards a beautiful mountain peak in Gyeryongsan (“Rooster-dragon”) Park near the city of Daejeon, when we came upon an open space where there were two pagodas (mythically representing a monk and his sister who had lived in the mountain centuries ago) and a temple, with hundreds of Korean hikers sitting around the tables provided in the clearing. Because there was hardly any space left, we walked a bit further up the path until we found a nice level area next to it where we could sit to have a bite to eat.

As we sat down on a flat rock and started taking our “padkos” out of my rucksack, we heard an exclamation and looked up. A diminutive Korean woman, dressed as a Roman Catholic nun and wearing hiking boots, was coming towards us with her arms open, talking non-stop in Korean. We said our “Annyeonghaseyos” and tried our best to respond intelligibly to her stream of words. Judging by her expression she was highly satisfied, and proceeded to offer us Korean rice cakes, with us responding by offering her a packet of South African Simba peanuts and raisins in return. The little nun was clearly a “confident”, and listened carefully to everything we said about our home country and the like, accompanied by gestures, before responding in Korean. Eventually she took her leave, indicating to us that we should be careful going up to the peak, gesturing to the steep cliffs on either side of the path.

Later that day, after reaching the first peak and traversing the ridge walk towards another one higher than the first, we chanced upon an “overconfident”, who could speak some English, and kept peppering us with questions and unsolicited advice about the “do’s and don’ts” of mountaineering, making sure that the people in his group were in a position where they could witness him showing off his mountaineering prowess, and in English, to boot, to two westerners. After being at the receiving end of his verbal barrages for a stretch of the trail, we were glad when he and his group took a turn onto a different route than the one we were following.

It is not difficult to apply these makeshift personality categories to people in your own culture or society either. I could draw connections between these and the categories that Freud and other thinkers gave us (such as “extrovert” and “introvert”), but what I will do instead is to add something to the above by pointing to another personality difference, one that is perhaps less a function of particular temperaments (such as those discussed above) than of a certain level of education and intellectual sophistication.

What I have in mind is the phenomenon sometimes observed when a person has attained a level of learning that has entailed, and involves, a high degree of self-reflection, such as studying for a doctoral degree in psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy and the less positivistic varieties of psychology, including critical psychology. In her wonderful auto-biographical novel, Lost in Translation (Viking, 1998), Polish émigré Eva Hoffman elaborates on this insofar as it applies to herself (a critically self-aware, professional woman with a Harvard PhD. in literature), and contrasts it with the personality of someone – in this case her mother – who is totally un-self-reflective, and instead of taking (reflective) stock of her feelings, simply “lives with them”.

Hoffman goes further, however, by suggesting that such differences between the completely non-critically aware and the sometimes painfully self-aware and anxiously self-critical (to the point of distraction) members of the human race are a function of a nation’s collective temperament. So, for instance, she finds that her American friends are constantly worrying about their “identities”, while her Polish friends (in New York), who are at ease in their own skins, as it were, are baffled by the Americans’ self-critical agonising (p. 261-267). The following passage captures some of these differences (p. 263):

“My American friends watch the vicissitudes of their identity carefully: now it’s firm, now it’s dissolving, now it’s going through flux and change…They see themselves as pilgrims of internal progress, heroes and heroines in a psychic drama. If they’re unhappy, they tend to blame it on themselves, on how they haven’t fine-tuned their identity well enough…For my Polish friends, an identity, or a character, is something one simply has. If they take to drink, or become unhappy, or get depressed, they look for reasons in their circumstances: it’s because a lover left them, or censorship stopped their book, or the situation in Poland is hopeless, or life is hard…”

I can’t help wondering where South Africans stand collectively with regard to these differences, or whether a dominant collective (South African) psychological trait could even be discerned.

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