Who Are You? - Understanding Individual Differences
This is a preview to the chapter Who Are You? - Understanding Individual Differences from the book The Global Nomad's Guide to University Transition by Tina L. Quick.
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You are All Alike!
When I first went to Africa I had a hard time remembering names and faces. I would remember a woman by the color of her dress and head scarf. But when she would show up the next day with another outfit or her hair in braids I would walk up to her and introduce myself again. It was good that most people were patient with me as I found it rather embarrassing. I never had this problem with people who belong to the same racial category as I did.
Now, in Afghanistan, I am trying to learn the names of the 30 or so drivers who work for our organization and I keep introducing myself to people who smile politely. I introduce myself over and over again to the same people and ask them who they are. It is embarrassing, but I don’t see the differences yet. I am looking at their overall Afghan-ness and in that respect they all look the same.
It is no different for Africans who first come to the United States and can’t seem to distinguish one blonde woman from another. It is not politically correct to admit this, but it happens to all of us.
As you get closer to people you begin to pick up more and more clues about them that differentiate one individual from another. First these clues are external characteristics such as “Ali is the one with the long curly hair or Fatima is the one with the almond shaped eyes and the coffee colored skin or Heidi has the pigtails and the blue-green eyes.” As you get to know people better you start to internalize these differences and don’t need to repeat them any longer to yourself. You can even recognize Heidi without pigtails and Ali after he has his hair cut off.
The less the distance between you and the other person, the more you notice about their ways of being, of doing, of speaking, and of thinking. You learn about the other’s temperament, ways of reasoning and deciding, and you become more and more adept at predicting behaviors and actions. The better you get to know each other, the more you realize your differences. This is true for people who are much like you and those who are not. Of course, this does not mean you like everyone that you get to know better. There comes a time when you have formed a judgment that will either keep you from getting any closer to someone or invite him or her further into a relationship with you.
When I was a young girl I often clashed with my parents who believed that I should get along with everybody and that no one should be left out. I disagreed with them, giving my judgment about this or that stupid girl. I remember them arguing with me, but I would not budge. I had made up my mind that Mary was obnoxious. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I didn’t like what I called obnoxious people. Of course, at the time I did not know that I was reacting to a difference, something that I could not articulate and my behavior made it impossible to discover that difference, let alone appreciate it.
I have known many more Marys since then, but I have also come to learn that these people I have wanted to remove from my life could actually contribute greatly to it – if I could only understand our differences; differences that could not necessarily be explained by radically different cultures or life experiences. These were differences that would be explained in other ways that, I discovered, were all between our ears!
Throughout the history of the world people have been fascinated, even obsessed, with understanding human differences. Typologies of temperamental differences have been recorded in ancient China, India, Persia, Greece and Egypt. Galen, who lived in what is now Western Turkey, (AD 131-200) wrote about individual differences in his De temperamentis, finding a physiological basis for such differences. Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist (1875-1961) studied individual differences in his own practice and came to the conclusion that people have preferences for how they process information. He called these ‘mental functions’ and introduced the concept of “function types” or “psychological types.”
Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers further developed Jung’s ideas and began to write questions on index cards to help identify people’s preferences. Their focus was on women who were entering the workforce to make up for the departure of men to the front during World War II. They believed that knowledge of personality preferences would help these women identify the sort of war-time jobs where they would be “most comfortable and effective.” (Briggs Myers, 1980: xiii).
Their initial questionnaire eventually became the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which was first published in 1962. Since then decades of research by Educational Testing Services has amassed a large body of data that have validated the instrument which is now one of the most used personality assessment instruments in the world.
As I was preparing for a trip to Mali with a colleague, we had a number of clashes about how to prepare for the assignment. Things had gotten to the point that we both dreaded this common assignment: travelling together, staying in the same hotel, and working all day and many evenings together. We were grating on each others’ nerves as the departure date came closer and closer.
A concerned and insightful colleague suggested that the tensions in our relationship that produced the irritations did not come from disliking each other but from profound differences in the way we mentally engaged with the demands of the task at hand. He administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to each of us and helped us interpret our vastly different scores.
The MBTI presented us with a whole new perspective on ourselves and our differences. We learned that we made a perfect team. Our strengths and weaknesses were nearly entirely complementary: what I was good at, she was not good at; where she was very competent and confident, I was out of my element. The reason we clashed is that we each tried to make the other adapt to our own ways of doing things. Knowing that she should leave me alone as I prepared for the open-ended part of the assignment that required a great deal of intuition and associative thinking, I was able to leave her alone to take care of budget and administrative issues that required a great deal of attention to detail and coming to closure. To make a long story short, the assignment was a success and we became very good friends who greatly respected each other.
When people engage in tasks using automatic, reflexive and largely unconscious processes, they do this in very different ways. The resulting behaviors can be a source of great joy or tremendous irritation. Not understanding the root causes of their reactions can lead people to judgments about the worth, intelligence or credibility of the other. As a result, much potential for positive and productive relationships is never realized. At best, people have lost the chance to make their information gathering and decision-making processes stronger. At worst, they come to foolish conclusions or make bad decisions. In either case, what is lost is a chance to see group genius at work and enjoy the experience of complementing one another and becoming better persons as a result. The applications of this learning process are myriad as you embark on your university experience. Getting along with a roommate, surviving on your hall or in your dorm, making new friends, and understanding and interpreting the demands of your professors will only be a few of the places this understanding of yourself and others will be helpful. So let’s take a look at how these mental processes differ.
Taking in Information: Sensors and Intuitors
Your senses allow you to take in information about the world around you. You do this by hearing, seeing (including reading), tasting, touching, or smelling. Although not entirely tangible, information you receive through your senses is objective and you can share it. You can ask someone else to see, taste, smell, hear, touch the same thing you are seeing, tasting, smelling, hearing, or touching.
You can also take in information via hunches, or intuition. You cannot touch it, but somehow you know. This happens when someone says, “I think you should turn right here rather than left.” But when you ask why, they cannot explain it. It’s a hunch. There is much written about hunches and intuition. In many parts of North America and Europe, hunches and intuition went through a long period of being discredited as a way of collecting information because they weren’t considered real or objective in a scientific sense. But we now know that hunches come from information that has been picked up without realizing it and stored for later use.
People who predominantly rely on intuition and hunches can get very irritated by people who don’t trust any information that did not come in, consciously, through any of their senses. The same is true in the other direction. Although everyone uses both types of taking in information, everyone has a preferred mode. Those who rely primarily on their senses are called ‘Sensors’ while those who rely primarily on their intuition are called, not surprisingly, ‘Intuitors.’
Evaluating Information: Thinkers and FeelersThe second critical mental process is what happens with the information once you have received it. As you process the data, whether sensory or intuitive, you arrive at conclusions that may lead to action or inaction, to a decision or indecision. This internal processing can follow two kinds of reasoning: one is objective and rational, using principles of linear, step-wise logic while the other process is based on subjective judgments, values, and concerns that follow another kind of logic that some would call irrational.
and all the others, when you
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