Agreeableness and amiability

I started my TEDx talk about depression and happiness last year by saying, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved words.”

Words fascinate me endlessly. Not just in their shape and meaning, but also in their different uses and interpretations.

In reading about the so-called “Big Five” personality traits over the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “agreeable”, about what it is, what it means and what effect agreeableness can have on us.

Agreeableness is one of the Big Five (the others are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion and neutoricism).

Psychologists established a consensus a number of years ago that measures across these five attributes offer an acceptable understanding of individual personality.

(Agreeableness, it turns out, is present in higher amounts in women rather than men. There is also a correlation between agreeableness and lower pay; people who are more agreeable generally have lower incomes than people who are not. There are a multitude of factors at play in the gender pay gap, and agreeableness is just one of those. It is also proven that men with a high degree of agreeableness earn less than men who are less agreeable.)

So while something being agreeable to us is usually a very good thing indeed — a hearty winter soup might be perfectly agreeable, in the sense that it’s enjoyable and pleasing — when we ourselves are more agreeable, it is often not a very good thing for us.

Being more agreeable tends, in many cases, to a lesser drive for excellence, to more acceptance of mediocrity and to less interpersonal conflict.

Few people enjoy interpersonal conflict, but interpersonal conflict is often required for things to progress satisfactorily for the greater good.

So being agreeable can be detrimental, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for our community as a whole.

Amiability is different to agreeableness.

Amiability is defined as friendly, affable, cordial and gracious. So we can be amiable without being fully agreeable when the need for disagreement arises.

Amiability, or being cordial and polite, being a decent human in our human exchanges, is always, always, always a good thing.

But agreeableness is often not a good thing. We can identify when we’re being agreeable for the sake of being agreeable, when we’re being agreeable in order to please. And when we do, we can check ourselves and take a different tack.

Committing to being amiable but guarding ourselves against our own agreeableness could be a productive approach. For the betterment not just of ourselves and everyone around us.


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