Putting Ketchup on your Night Peanuts: What I’ve Learned about Personality Differences
I used to use myself as a sort of baseline for what new people I met would be like. Now, I know better. I’m always amazed at the variety of differences. I once read, “where men and women differ… they are not comparable.” This complex observation applies far beyond gender.
A simpler example is clothing. It’s easy to compare a red shirt and a blue shirt. But what if one person wears a red shirt over blue pants and the other wears a patterned, multi-colored strapless dress? A dress partly acts as a shirt, but also encompasses the function of pants without otherwise being much like pants at all. And where do detailed patterns fit into a simple assessment of color? Is a dress also considered an outfit, and if not, what is it?
Like the red and blue shirts, binaries like messy vs. clean only scratch the surface of personality differences. That particular binary contains several questions: Does it mean tidy vs. cluttered? Or sanitized vs. dust-gathering? Organized vs. disorganized? Even once those are clarified, some have high cleanliness standards for guest visits and none at all the rest of the time. Or differing standards for themselves and others.
Consider the difference in lifestyle between a homemaker or full-time parent and a career man or woman. How can these two paths be meaningfully compared? Their goals and methods of achieving them are completely different. The concepts of hours, timelines, pay, etc. aren’t even based on the same set of possibilities.
One of my favorite quotes is “everyone is particular about some things and not particular about others.” Our own quirks feel normal, so we can be deluded into forgetting we’re every bit as particular as others (about some things). We prefer to think we’re easygoing while others are weirdly picky.
One friend of mine gets vaguely depressed whenever she drives a car. Another needs her groceries packed in many separate bags to avoid any threat of squishing or crushing. Jess in New Girl keeps a stash of night peanuts in her bedroom (Season 3, Episode 5). I think applause should happen naturally and being pressured into clapping (especially a group clap) feels almost as awkward as laughing on command and in sync. Another friend of mine avoids her friends if she spots them out in public because the spontaneity of the interaction is stressful. I really dislike it when someone I don’t know addresses me by my name after having seen it on a name tag; it feels presumptuous. I think this is why I don’t like wearing name tags.
These six traits defy categorization, and none of them are comparable, yet all are differences: I doubt any of us has even two of these traits.
In light of our differing differences, there is no possible way to be careful enough, or guess enough details to avoid offense or disagreement. “Prevention is the best cure” for many problems, but no preparation can preclude all relational conflict.
An example of an unavoidable conflict: Dominique grew up with “no labels on the table.” Putting food and condiments into serving dishes was an unquestioned way to show honor and hospitality to guests. Jordan, on the other hand, has never heard of such a thing and thinks nothing of putting the Heinz ketchup bottle on the dinner table. How could this newlywed couple with gender-neutral names have predicted they’d suddenly find themselves in an argument over whether it’s mostly wasteful or mostly polite to transfer ketchup into a serving dish when a friend comes over? You can’t possibly guess that kind of thing.
In a close, long-term relationship like the one we hope Dominique and Jordan will enjoy, one can learn the other person’s idiosyncrasies and improve communication by accommodating them. But that doesn’t apply to most conversations.
In movies and books, people (especially partners) understand one another’s inner thoughts at a glance. In real life, if you want someone to know your thoughts, most of the time you have to open your mouth and tell them.
Yet regardless of how well you communicate, your message is still filtered by the listener’s state of mind. For example, during an exchange with an annoying person, a friend might subtly make eye contact with you and roll their eyes or make a frustrated face. If you’re caught off guard or feeling insecure, you might think they’re expressing frustration with you, even though it’s practically the exact opposite.
On the positive side, “Differences provide opportunities for expressing unconditional love,” Charles Stanley points out in The Spirit-Filled Life. When we like all the same things, it’s fun to suggest we eat/do/talk about them, but it’s not necessarily love. But when I don’t like something and I’m willing to do it for you, I’m putting you first. The ketchup couple have a chance to show love that they wouldn’t have if they grew up with the same habits.
Whether I agree with someone or not, I can love and support them by accepting their idiosyncrasies; everyone has quirks and there is no baseline of normalcy.
When I meet a new person now, I try to assume as little as possible knowing I can’t yet fathom the ways they may differ from me and whatever I learn will teach me about my own traits.
Originally published at www.sailingbythestars.com on June 1, 2017.