Saturday, February 28, 2015

Tooth gaps, Chaucer, and Personality Types

 In fourth grade, I thought the coolest kid in my class was Brian Slobotsky. Not only did he have an awesome last name, but he had this gap between his two front teeth that allowed him to perform an astonishing feat. He would get a mouthful of water from the fountain, form his lips in a circle, and shoot a thin stream of water through that gap, sometime aimed at the water fountain, but more often at one of us. His mad skill provided an endless source of entertainment for our fourth grade class.

When I studied Chaucer in college, I learned that in the middle ages people with a gap between their front teeth were thought to be amorous and overly interested in sex. Thus, when Chaucer introduces his Wif of Bath character, he points out that she is "gat-toothed,"  which apparently explains the fact that she has worked her way through five husbands.

It never occurred to me in fourth grade to question Brian's sexual proclivities, but who knows? I've not heard from him in awhile, so I suppose he could have lived a life of sexual adventure and serial divorce.

Whenever I return to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, as I'm doing now with my early British literature class, I find it fascinating how they so readily equated physical traits with morality or immorality and with specific personality types. Gap-toothedness is a striking example, but there are others. Thus, the Monk, who plays against type with his love of hunting and eating and drinking (in a delightful phrase, Chaucer says it snowed meat and drink in the Monk's house), is predictably plump and has a red face, indicating his sanguine and jolly personality. The Reeve (the superintendent of a large farming operation), on the other hand, is thin as a reed, matching his fiery, choleric personality type.

It's easy enough to laugh at the simplicity and ignorance of our ancestors, of course. After all, we've studied human psychology enough to know that a person's physical appearance has little, if anything, to do with his moral character or personality type.

Or have we? Our obsession with the bodies, physical appearance, and dress of actors at the recently completed Academy Awards ceremony might indicate otherwise. It seems we're still not beyond assuming that someone who is beautiful on the outside is also good on the inside, or at least different than us, with a more sparkling or winsome personality. How many times have I made judgments or assumptions about a person's morality or personality traits based on the size of his waistline? Or assumed that a physically attractive student in one of my classes was, de facto, a good student or scholar?

 When I worked in the corporate world, one company used a simplified personality test with the goal of improving interpersonal communications and productivity. The system looked something like this:

  The Four Personality Types:
•Golden Retriever-amiable-Peaceful-Phlegmatic 
I don't remember using the animal designations, but all employees in the company took the test and were classified as Expressives, Drivers, Analyticals, or Amiables. They were then put through a training course (which I led) to help them understand more about their type as well as how to interact successfully with other types. 

I remember I was an analytical and that one of the owners of the firm was a driver, what we often call a Type A personality. That the test had some degree of accuracy was confirmed for me when I ran into him in the hallway early one morning and had this exchange:
Me: "Good morning, Bob. How are you."
Bob: "Great! Nothing like a good fight before breakfast!"

 Needless to say, Bob was the owner I had the most trouble working with.

All this leads me to several observations:

  • I do understand the usefulness of these tests. They can be helpful in educational or work environments. For example, if I (an anayltical) am trying to convince my supervisor (a driver) to approve a new company policy, I'm wise not to give him twenty minutes of background detail but instead get straight to the point with a few, well-chosen arguments. 
  • These tests can be dangerous because they encourage our tendency to categorize and stereotype individuals. It's easy to think because a colleague or co-worker or student is an Amiable, for example, we can make any kind of unreasonable demand and they are likely to go along with it for the sake of the relationship.
  • These tests can be dangerous because they cause us to put limits on people's capacities and potential for growth. For example, I might have a colleague who is an analytical and tends to be uncomfortable making presentations to large groups of people. Normally I wouldn't even think of asking her to present before a group because I know how difficult it is for her. But what if an event is coming up where she is clearly the most knowledgeable person about the topic? Perhaps by asking her to step out of her comfort zone and present, I'm doing both her and the audience a favor: my colleague gets a growth opportunity and the audience gets the benefit of her expertise.
So ultimately I guess I'm saying that a human's personality is too complex and unique to be placed in a box--whether it's a personality test designation or a judgment based on physical appearance.

Going back to Chaucer, I have to say those folks in the middle ages had more on the ball than we give them credit for. After all, the contemporary personality types I found through my extensive research (two Google clicks on the Internet) still use the medieval humours (Sanguine, Melancholy, etc.) to try to categorize the mysteries of human behavior.

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