Personality’s light touch

I’ve been on this personality kick, but something I haven’t really considered much is this: how do these different personality types fit into different cultures? Different microcultures? One person, for example, pointed out that although there are introverts and extroverts within his family, in the outside world, they would all be considered introverts. In a global setting, Americans are known to be individualistic, materialistic, enthusiastic. And while they have larger space bubbles than the Chinese, they may be less loath to violate the space bubble in the name of friendliness.

Here’s a question: would you tickle someone you barely knew to draw them out of their shell? Say, on the knee. I argue this is rude and invasive, which could be an individual perception and due to my personality. However, I doubt that’s all there is to it, because I can’t imagine this being remotely polite in any culture but the USA’s. The USA is driven by the appearance of a good time, and the abundance of this need may lead someone to force a laugh even from unwilling participants.

I had a fairly extensive argument about this that I did not win, mostly because any appeal I made to logic or the necessity of being inviting rather than invasive was met with: “Yes, but someone else might perceive that as inviting; you don’t, which is typical of your personality type.”

How do you argue with that? Simple: you go to the broader view, which is not tied to your personality type. Personality is all well and good, but it fits into the broader culture as well.

Take the British, the lovely, deadpan British. How uncouth would it be for you, a jovial young male, to give a new friend on the tube in London a cheerful, creeping squeeze on the knee? “I beg your pardon,” says the British friend “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Ha! Ha!” you say “You can’t be serious! You just cracked a smile!” And, encouraged by this perceived friendliness, you go in for another squeeze. Until you realize the knee isn’t there, because your new friend has exited without warning.

Or take the Japanese, who are so charmed with subtlety that the better the sake, the less taste it will have. You’re trying to get the new business associate to loosen up. That bland sake isn’t working so well, so you try your patent-pending knee squeeze.

Well, even you realize how bad of an idea this one is when he then delivers a careful speech about how flattered he is by your advances, but he cannot reciprocate because he is not gay.

Or take the French, even. The French! You’ve just spent four solid hours eating food, drinking wine, and yakking about politics. The girl on your right has been enthusiastically shooting your ideas down for the past hour, but rarely cracks a smile. You grin; nothing. Joke; nothing. Give her a poke. She tenses and looks at you sideways. So you pull out the big guns and tickle her knee.

“Excusez-moi,” she snaps out “J’en ai pas envie. Pas avec vous.”

“Envie de…?” you mumble, confused.

“Vous savez bien.”

“Non, non, je voulais juste vous dire un petit, vous savez, un petit bonjour. Vous avez l’aire de vous pas amuser.”

“Je m’amuse pas mal.”

You may write all of these failures off as personality differences, but there is something larger at work here. Don’t try this very extensively, or you may even get your head punched, in New York or Appalachia or Johannesburg or Berlin. Or you may just get slapped with an abuse suit.

Because personality is only the beginning. You’ve still got to localize who you are or risk being thought a jerk.

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