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I was a psychology major as an undergrad which means I enjoy taking personality tests (even if I don’t always buy into them). Recently I took the Newcastle Personality Assessor, which measures what psychologists calls the “Big 5” personality dimensions. They are:
Extraversion – People high on this dimension are outgoing, energetic, positive, assertive,talkative, and tend to seek stimulation in the company of others.
Openness to experience – People high on this dimension are curious, creative, and independent. They appreciate art, novel ideas, adventure, and a constant variety of life activities.
Conscientiousness – People high on this dimension show self-discipline and aim for achievement. They are efficient, organized, and dependable (versus easy-going, spontaneous, and careless).
Agreeableness – People high on this dimension are friendly, compassionate, cooperative, and trusting.
Neuroticism – People high on this dimension experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability. Highly neurotic people can be impulsive, sensitive, and emotionally unstable.
The Newcastle personality test claims to accurately assess the Big 5 traits with only 10 questions, which I initially answered with ease. I quickly gave myself a “moderately likely” for “make sure others are comfortable and happy” and “neither likely nor unlikely” for “feel stressed or worried.” I tallied up my results for each dimension, considered my results, and thought, yeah, that seems about right.
How little do I know myself…
Yesterday something happened that made me reevaluate my answers to the personality test. It had to do with my mom and her upcoming trip to France.
My mom was a French major at UVA and has had a variety of jobs including radio dj and apartment manager. She now lives in Richmond and pursues passions like playwrighting, acting, gardening, and “green” architecture. But guess what she’s never done… she’s never gone to France! That’s right. She’s a French major who loves French literature and French culture but has never gone to France. In fact, she had never been out of the country until 2008 when she visited me for a week in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I was staying for the summer.
I’ve been bugging her for ages that she should go to France. She wanted to, but she was nervous about spending the money and traveling by herself in a foreign country. Finally, about a year ago, she started making plans. She decided to fly to Paris for a few days then take the train to Blois and join a small group for a week-long biking trip through the Loire Valley.
For the past few months she’s been preparing: buying padded shorts, making to-do lists, practice-packing her suitcase. And riding her bike, of course. She even participated in a 25-mile bike race this past weekend – the Cap-to-Cap in Richmond. She’s been dreaming about France, reading about France, and getting increasingly nervous/excited about her trip. (She leaves this Sunday.)
Then, the other day, she got a call from the Blue Marble travel company. Apparently, the bike trip she’d been scheduled for had been on the small side – only three other people besides my mom – and now all three people had dropped out. Normally they cancel trips with less than four people, but since it was so last minute, they told my mom she could still go on the trip – just her and the guide, Pierre. Or, they would allow her to cancel with a full-refund.
“On the one hand, it could be fine,” I said to her that night as we discussed the issue while making dinner. “You’d get a lot of personal attention, and maybe Pierre will be awesome.”
My mom nodded. She was pretty frustrated — after all her planning, things were falling apart. I poured us both large glasses of wine.
“On the other hand, what if Pierre sucks?” I mused. “You’ll be with him non-stop for a week. What are you going to talk about meal after meal after meal?”
“I can’t not go,” my mom said, chopping cucumbers viciously. “I’ve already bought my plane tickets and made my hotel reservations. I’ve already taken two weeks off from work.”
“No, you should still go,” I said. Blue Marble was now offering the trip at half price to see if they could get some last minute people to join the group. “I’ll ask around,” I said. “Maybe we can find other people who are interested in going.”
I emailed people and posted on my facebook page, and my mom put up flyers at the Cap-to-Cap bike race. But as her departure date grew nearer, it became painfully obvious that she was going to have to go on this bike trip alone.
Then, I got a crazy idea. I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. Of course, I would have to squeeze in the trip to France among a trip to Seattle, a trip to Roanoke, and my upcoming cross-country move. I would have to spend $2500 I really shouldn’t be spending. But if I were there – if I went on the bike trip with my mom – I could make sure she was having a good time.
With anxiety building in my chest, I started flipping through my calendar and looking up flights, planning out how I could make this work. I started getting excited. I started imagining myself biking riding through the French country side. What would I wear? When would I have time to pack? I should start looking through a French phrase book.
With my mind going a million miles a minute, I emailed my mom with the plan, and then I called my boyfriend, Paul.
“I don’t know, Eva,” he said. “That’s a lot of money to spend right before our big move. And it’s not your responsibility to make sure your mom has a good trip.”
“I know,” I said. “I wouldn’t even consider it, except she’s been wanting to go to France for forever, and she’s been planning and preparing… I just feel so bad for her.”
And here’s where I started to cry. “I’m just so worried,” I blubbered. “I’m worried that she’s sad and disappointed and frustrated. I want to make sure it’s an amazing experience for her and the only way I can think to do that is to go with her.”
“That’s really sweet of you,” Paul said.
“Hold on a minute. Let me blow my nose.” I was full-on sobbing by now, tears streaming down my face.
Paul told me about places he’d been to in the south of France that maybe my mom could visit instead of going on the bike trip. I was only half-listening – I was a bundle of nerves. I needed to call my mom, and then I needed to start preparing for my unexpected trip to France. I should probably go for a long bike ride, too.
“Those are really good suggestions,” I told Paul. I didn’t want him to think I didn’t appreciate his ideas, after all, they might come in handy if the two of us ever visit southern France.
“I’m sure those places are wonderful,” I said, “but I think planning a whole new trip on her own will stress my mom out even more.” It was stressing me out just thinking about it. “Let me call her,” I said. “Let me see what she says.”
What my mom said surprised me. I’d been expecting her to mention the money, or the fact that I was too busy to drop everything and accompany her to France. Instead she said, “no, Eva, this is my trip. I think this is something I need to do on my own.”
We talked for a minute, and I told her I’d poke around on the Internet and see if I could find a comparable bike trip – same dates, same price, etc. Maybe she could switch to a different trip that actually had other people in the group.
This was something reasonable I could do to help her. So why had my first impulse been to jump on a plane and helicopter-parent my own mother to make sure she was happy and comfortable?
* * *
After an hour of Internet surfing, I found a possible new bike trip in the Loire Valley and emailed my mom the info. Then I went back to the Newcastle Personality Assessor. I had given myself a middle of the road “3” for “feel stressed or worried.” Now that I had just spent the afternoon crying and freaking out about my mom’s bike trip, I knew I needed to change it to a 5 – very likely. I looked again at “make sure others are comfortable and happy.” I needed to change that from a 4 to a 5. Obviously, I care a lot about making others happy.
In fact, I started to see how this whole incident was a perfect indicator of my levels on the Big 5 personality traits. I was open to experience — I’d been willing (and rather excited) to hop on a plane to France and try my hand at biking long distances. And yet, I’m also very conscientious — I’d started organizing and making to to-do lists in my mind the moment the idea occurred to me. Agreeable? Oh god, was I agreeable! Just look at the compassion I’d exhibited regarding a snafu with my mom’s bike trip. And then there was neuroticism. Here I’d thought that I wasn’t neurotic, but the afternoon had proved that I can be impulsive, sensitive, and pretty gosh-darn anxious.
I started wondering how other people would have reacted in the same situation. What other situations had happened in my life that so clearly demonstrated my personality dimensions? I started thinking about how the characters in the novel I’m writing would score on each of these traits.
Lately I’ve been feeling like I don’t know my novel characters well enough. I don’t want to make them all little mirrors of me, so I make them do and say things I wouldn’t, but then I start to feel like I don’t really understand them. Maybe I need to score them on the Newcastle Personality Assessor and use that as a guide to better understand how they would react in various situations.
The more I think about it, the more I think personality tests can be really helpful with writing fiction.
They can also probably be a good tool for living, and learning how to live with other people. I’ve asked Paul to take the test (we’re going to be living together soon), but I’m still waiting on his results. Come to think of it, I should ask my mom, too. I’m pretty sure she’s lower on the Openness dimension than me, hence her initial reservations about going to France. But I also think she’s relatively low on Neuroticism and Extroversion. So she’ll probably be fine, even if she does end up in a group of one. She’ll have a wonderful experience; she doesn’t need me by her side to make sure of it.