The Big Five personality traits and how they relate to expatriate life is something I’ve been itching to write about for a long time. The reason is personal: the sad fact that I struggle with certain aspects of daily existence that seem to come easily to others has always been a source of enormous frustration for me. Why, I’ve always wondered, do I find it so hard to just get out there and LIVE? Why all the angst?
Taking the Big Five personality test provided me with some of the answers. Even though slapping a label on something as complex as personality seems overly simplistic, I have to admit that a part of me found it comforting to know that I could be neatly slotted into discrete categories.
- Openness to Experience: 16 (You prefer traditional and familiar experiences)
- Conscientiousness: 21 (You tend to do things somewhat haphazardly)
- Extraversion: 37 (You tend to shy away from social situations)
- Agreeableness: 69 (You tend to consider the feelings of others)
- Neuroticism: 94 (You are a generally anxious person and tend to worry about things)
Some readers noted in the comments sections of these posts that their scores didn’t quite reflect reality. Not me; my results were accurate — so accurate, in fact, that I sank (quite predictably!) into despair, and began to question the wisdom of allowing this awkward and fragile little creature to venture too far from home. How on earth could someone who prefers familiar experiences, shies away from social situations, is generally anxious and tends to worry (a LOT), ever manage to survive — let alone thrive — while living in a new culture?
It was only when I remembered that I’d somehow pulled it off (several times, in fact) that I started to consider the rest of the story — the part those scores weren’t conveying.
Looking at the big picture
The mistake, of course, is focusing on each personality trait in isolation. We are multi-faceted beings, so it’s not surprising that any single aspect of our personality cannot possibly shoulder the responsibility of expressing the richness and uniqueness of our natures. To get a true picture of personality, it’s important to examine the interactions between the various traits.
Think of the Big Five traits as hockey players. As individuals, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. On the ice, however, they’re usually more effective when they work together. A player who’s about to be cross-checked will pass the puck to a teammate in a better position. A hothead who’s spoiling for a fight will be held back by her more even-tempered teammates. A weak skater on a breakaway will lose the puck to the opposing team if his teammates aren’t there to help him.
Just like these players, personality traits aren’t solo acts: they work in concert, often enhancing or weakening each other.
Take, for example, the trait of extraversion. People who score at the low end of the scale (the introverts — or as I like to call them, “my people”) are sometimes characterized as people-hating recluses. While I’m sure that’s true in some cases, it’s certainly not an absolute rule. If low extraversion is combined with high agreeableness, what you end up with is someone quite like me: warm and friendly, but hesitant to initiate contact. (I will never forget one of my high school teachers telling me he thought I was a “snobby ice princess” before he got to know me. LOL… I think.) Agreeableness also softens my neuroticism, and keeps me from spewing vitriol whenever I get upset.
It might be helpful to view the Big Five traits as tendencies. How we choose to embody these tendencies is up to us; we can follow them blindly, or we can decide to reach for something more by tweaking our reactions and adjusting our behaviours. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which trains neurotics to break their destructive patterns of negative thinking, is a prime example of this.
That Big Five test is fun and illuminating, as long as we remember that we aren’t one-dimensional cartoon characters. We’re vibrant, living, evolving individuals. To brand us as extraverted or conscientious or any other single-trait identifier denies the depth and fullness of our personalities, ignores the value of our life experiences, and disregards our power to adapt and grow when necessary.
This is the last post in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. Previous posts in the series are:
- What you need to know about The Big 5 and expat adjustment
- Openness to Experience