A number of things have converged this week causing me to think about how we connect to others and, more specifically, the role that agreeableness plays in doing so.
The first was a message from my daughter telling me that she’d split up with her boyfriend.
They’ve been trying to address their differences for a while but have decided that their respective lives are in places that make them, for one reason or another, impossible to combine in a sustainable and meaningful way.
Another way I think about it, especially when compared to some of her previous boyfriends, is that they are both perfectly agreeable individuals who, sadly, do not create a sufficiently agreeable combination.
During a tearful FaceTime with her, she hugged a cuddly octopus with a reversible smiley or sad face.
“You turn him inside or out, whichever way fits your mood and, if it’s the grumpy one, your partner knows to give you space.”
It sounded like a reasonable idea.
“Mine would be forever showing a grumpy face,” I told her.
She tightened her mouth and raised her eyebrows conveying an absence of surprise.
My own lack of agreeableness is something I’ve always recognised but never felt much enthusiasm for doing anything about.
When I received my ASD diagnosis late in my life, it simply made it easier to understand rather than offering any insight that might lead to a significant change.
It isn’t that I don’t like people, it’s just that I’d prefer other people take responsibility for talking to them.
Nobody has ever said so, but I’m sure that, in social settings at least, I must have often been perceived as rude, aloof, ignorant, odd, a combination of these, or, quite likely, much worse.
When I’ve allowed myself to, it can feel like quite a serious flaw, but I always seem to find something to mitigate my discomfort, and this week, it came in the form of a lovely piece by Laura Kennedy.
“Getting along with people in a social situation just isn’t a priority for me at all, and I’m not very friendly in person unless I know and like someone. I won’t make any more effort in a social interaction than I’m in the mood to make.”
Amen to that, Laura.
Rather than encouraging me towards creating a more agreeable version of myself this sort of thing simply entrenches my position and helps me feel more justified safe in the knowledge that there are more of us out there.
On a car journey with my daughter a few years ago we were discussing the “Big 5” personality traits so popular with psychologists.
They are, in case you don’t have an unhealthy interest in this sort of thing,
I can’t remember now how it came about, but we concluded that, whilst it is a common idea that dogs look like their owners, in my case at least, dogs also appear to reflect their personality traits.
Daisy is right along at the introverted end of the introversion/extroversion scale, rarely open to even a tummy rub unless it is preceded either by cheese or provided by a family member, neurotic enough to be in an early Woody Allen movie, and the least agreeable Labrador I’ve ever met.
Like me, she doesn’t seem to give two hoots about how it affects other people as long as there are two good meals, a walk or two, and a comfy place to sleep.
Conscientiousness, we agreed, was an outlier, because Daisy is much lazier than me.
The thing is, she is not loved any less by those close to her for all of her lack of social effort. So maybe the importance of agreeableness is overrated.
The third thing that made me think about agreeableness was a piece by Oliver Burkeman about things being harder to achieve not because they are especially difficult or complicated but because we have erroneously deemed them so.
As I have grown older I have given up the pretensions I used to employ with regard to agreeableness in an effort to make life easier to navigate believing it too difficult to change what has been, albeit frequently masked, the habit of a lifetime.
There was a time when I would have accepted an invite to a party and possibly even started a conversation, but my enthusiasm has dwindled with age.
Eager to understand more about the idea of becoming more agreeable I found an article in the New York Times about how our personalities are not set in stone.
I knew that of course, but the examples of acting as if you are the person you wish to be reminded me of the times I have suggested this strategy to countless clients over the years.
“Physician, heal thyself.”
The deciding factor then appears to be how much you want to change.
My neighbours, who own two cats that enjoy shitting in my raised beds, are the sort of neighbours most of us want. Quiet, friendly, and respectful of my personal boundaries (I can’t say the same for their cats), but I’ve still always struggled to engage with them other than in those awkward moments when we’re both putting the washing out and are forced to comment on the unseasonably mild weather while we try to avoid judging one another’s bedding.
But then, a few months ago, they put a card through my door with a picture of a dog on it and inside had written a short message informing me that they were going away on holiday, that the cats would also be gone (hooray!) and that they would be back at the weekend.
It was an unnecessary courtesy but something in me felt a warmth that was unfamiliar.
I thought no more of it until a few weeks later when we were off on holiday ourselves and I found myself standing at their door, ringing the bell, and telling my neighbour that we would be away for a week.
“Oh, that’s nice, where are you off to?”
“The Suffolk coast, near Aldeburgh.”
“It looks as if the weather’s going to be kind to you.”
“OK, well have a great time. We’ll keep an eye on the place for you.”
They shut the door and I returned home.
“We’ll keep an eye on the place for you,” kept ringing in my ears.
So this is what agreeableness feels like, is it?
When I found myself calling over the fence yesterday and asking about their recent trip to see a friend in Somerset and enquiring how their son is getting on in his new home I wondered if a change was more possible than I’d imagined, but I’m still not coming to your party.