What does it mean if someone says you have no personality?
“We typically understand that we have not been paid a compliment,” write four researchers from Ouachita Baptist University in a recently published study. But the term is otherwise a little vague. Does it mean you’re quiet and reserved, or that you’re just not very unique? Are you, God forbid, basic?
The study’s conclusions point to something unfortunate for the quiet and reserved among us. People with no personality are those who don’t bombard other people with their preferences and thoughts like little opinion drones. And their image suffers for it.
First the researchers asked 104 study participants to describe what it means to have “no personality” or “a lot of personality” in an open-ended writing exercise. Then each participant nominated a character from a book, movie, or TV show that has no personality and one that has a lot of personality. The participants rated the characters in terms of the “big five” personality scale, a common psychological tool for gauging people’s levels of extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience.
The two characters nominated most often as having a lot of personality were Kramer from Seinfeld and Spider-Man from, uh, New York City. The characters most commonly deemed to have no personality were Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and two subdued characters from The Office, Angela Martin and Toby Flenderson. (Some might argue that Angela’s personality was to be an uptight spoilsport in an office otherwise plagued with HR violations, but this is science, not TV criticism.)
The participants said they considered the characters with no personality—the Sheldons and Angelas of the world—less extroverted and less open to new experiences. They also deemed the characters with a lot of personality more likable.
It is possible that the participants were just responding to the nature of TV; most people like to watch Kramer, even though they wouldn’t necessarily like to be around him in person. And a few participants nominated Sheldon as having a lot of personality, which suggests the classification is, in part, in the eye of the beholder. But when it came to the descriptions of regular people with lots of and little personality, the division became clear: No personality bad; lots of personality good.
More than half of the participants said that having no personality meant variations on boring, with people describing it as “bland,” “dull,” or lacking charisma. About a third of people said it meant people who were not unique or memorable, or who had no strong views or preferences. In short, distinguishing this person from all the other people on Earth was hard. A person with “low personality” was someone who was reserved and quiet, according to about a quarter of the responses.
A lot of personality, meanwhile, generally meant people who are sociable, energetic, and emotionally expressive. They’re confident and assertive. They are (gag) “bubbly,” the study found. “It appears that a lack of animation and outward expression of emotions” is important to the perception that someone lacks a personality, the authors write.
And thus, the study comes to a timeworn, frustrating phenomenon: People seem to confuse bombastic displays of “ME!” with a rich interior life. No personality really just means quiet, and quiet is seen as unlikable. People who are just trying to go with the flow, to not say anything that might piss anyone off, to not loudly voice their lunch-place preference, haven’t been doing themselves any favors.
When you keep your personality on the inside, people think it doesn’t exist. The tyranny of extroversion persists.