What the frick's a personality?

She’s got personality! He’s got character. They’re quite temperamental. But what do we really mean?

Each of us has a personality; an enduring pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving to relate to ourselves, others and the world. Like the body, it’s unique, and it’s a vehicle to help you drive down the highway of your unique experience of life. It’s your style of driving; how you do life.

You can’t see it and we don’t know where it is, yet it’s real. You can feel it. We frequently judge personalities: he’s really easy-going, she has a mean streak, she’s outgoing, he’s insecure, he’s intense, she’s conservative, I’m too emotional, they’re too loud, too rigid and so on. Personalities can cause clashes, friction and conflict.

Your personality is shaped by your biological inheritance, cultural inheritance and by your life experiences, early ones you don’t even remember. Love in childhood protects against mental illness.[1] Early trauma and neglect are problems, obviously, and they can affect a person’s personality badly.

So what the frick is a personality?

The word personality has two main derivations. Firstly, from the Greek, persona meaning “mask,” something we can hide behind and through which we express ourselves. It’s not “the real you.”

Secondly, from the Latin per sonare meaning “through sound,” or “the way we sound.” This musical meaning reflects how we can be attuned to, in harmony with, or dissonance to, other people. Temperament is the word for the genetic part of personality; what you inherited from your biological parents. Musical temperament is “tuning,” a pattern used by piano tuners, for example, to keep the instrument in tune with itself. Some people’s temperaments can sound good together and some create dissonance. Dissonance between two people is not one person’s fault or the other person’s fault, just as dissonance between two musical notes is not one note’s fault or the other note’s fault. It’s simply the result of two different but equally valid tones that don’t sound great together.

Have you ever felt you were “in tune” with someone or “on the same wave-length?” Or have you ever felt “dissonant,” “out of tune” or “not on the same wave-length” with someone? It’s just a per sonare temperament thing; a musical by-product that’s going on in the space between you. I get a bad vibe from him. We chime in together well. These are musical expressions for temperament and personality. I clash with him every time I see him. I really resonate with what she’s saying.

Personalities, like musical notes, can clash or resonate well.

As said, like the body, the personality mask is a vehicle helps you get through life. Musically, it’s your style, the way you do life. Once you’re fully grown, you can exercise to keep your body fit and trim, but you can’t change your head size. The personality is similar. You can work on social skills to be more comfortable in social situations, but core aspects will stay stable.

Personality is the developed “driving style,” “mask,” “sound” of you, the adult.

Temperament is what you inherited from your biological parents.

Character is the beliefs and values you learnt and chose along the way.

 You’re the driver. You decide where to go. Your body is the car. Your personality is the “style” of your car and your driving: how tidy you keep things, how you treat passengers, your driving style, and the courtesy you give other drivers.

We could all learn better driving skills to make life safer and more fun.

 Conflicts are often due to a clash of personality “attunement” or “driving styles” rather than someone being right and the other wrong. This needs to be accepted. One thing you can do is hide some of your personality under your mask (drive more slowly). Knowing this will make it easier to accept conflict and share goodwill even in the midst of a clash. Another way of handling personality dissonance is to openly discuss it (wind down the window and gently share ideas). You can often do this with people who are close to you.

TIP. Personality clashes can be handled by hiding, or discussing. The closer the person, the more chance there may be to discuss.

For more on personality, check out our podcast on this topic:

[1] Perry, Bruce D., and Maia Szalavitz. Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential-and Endangered. HarperCollins, 2010, page v.

Christian Heim