Getting a sense of the person
Over the years that brought sweet maturity, I’ve learnt that it pays to trust my instinct, to the point that I let my gut decide about things which my mind struggles to figure out. A principle I had to put to the test when the famous Jon Mallia got in touch to invite me, in all his straightforwardness, to be the first female guest on his podcast. After doing what I normally do with stuff of this sort – I park it – I got the call that reminded me that in order to decide, I needed to meet Jon in person so I could, as I later explained, ‘sense him’.
Jon is magnetic. He is also the type of person who turns up late to an appointment where it’s in his interest to be on his best behavior, and gets away with it, unmarked. With Jon conversation flows like fine single malt whisky in a tasting party – in small doses – jumping happily from one region to another, until it’s time to wrap up, join the dots, and be left with a pleasant feeling that language fails to distill.
The same thing happened during the actual podcast. I was mildly terrified, but working hard to conceal it behind the light layer of make-up and the bright yellow jacket. Getting there and getting started, I had been counting the minutes, nervously checking my watch every 30 seconds, but once Jon opened the curtain on our little stage, time threw a tantrum and walked out in protest.
The great Big 5
We talked about sex. Not the activity type, but the biological reality of our identity. Then, suddenly, and without any warning, in the same way one would expect you to overcome an obstacle in the Triwizard maze, Jon asked me to decode his personality using the Big 5. I rolled up my sleeve, and began to work through the letters of the OCEAN.
The first trait, O for openness, was the easiest by far. Jon’s openness is extreme to the point where you might need to shout out loud for protection ‘Don’t show me more of what’s in that mind of yours!’ And for someone who has probably experimented with 90% of all possible routes to pleasure known to man, but who still insists that it is better to follow your blisters rather than your bliss, I would say the classification ‘extremely high in openness’ sounds credible enough.
And that bigger word, conscientiousness
The great C in conscientiousness – that unusual trait that domesticated our hunter-gatherer nature and burdened some of us modern humans with a sort of anxious obsessiveness and future-mindedness – presented a problem. I could easily get away with ranking Jon on the low end of the conscientiousness scale; after all, the trait did include punctuality as one of its hallmark characteristics. It also predicts a certain respect for social norms, which is why, judging by what little I had watched of Jon’s productions, none of his production crew would have stopped me if I had stood up and written F for failure in conscientiousness in white on the black-painted wall. But I’ll admit I was conflicted, at least to some degree. Here was a man who confesses that Jordan B. Peterson’s bestseller ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ transformed his life, and that one of the ways in which he, in his own words, negotiates the border between chaos and order is through self-control, delay of gratification, and compartmentalisation. A rather big word that basically defines what Jon does to extract benefit out of the competing thoughts in his head: he neatly arranges different scenarios in separate boxes. I had my first dilemma, until I suspected that Jon, like other men, had been a late bloomer in the field of conscientiousness.
There’s not much to say about Jon’s extraversion, except that it is generously displayed. The same goes for neuroticism, the one personality axis associated with negative emotions, except this is nearly absent. If anything, I quickly reasoned, it would be these emotions – fear, sadness, anxiety and guilt – that wouldn’t dare go anywhere near Jon.
To agree or to disagree
Which led me to the final challenge, that of determining whether Jon is as disagreeable as one might expect from a typical male, and how to frame this revelation in a way that does not pollute the spirit of conviviality we were enjoying (or risk a premature ending to the show). In between the small sips of fruity beer, I could smell myself sweat slightly. Being the principled obsessive that I am, I was more concerned with erring in public and delivering the wrong judgement than offending Jon with my higher-than average marks in disagreeableness. I don’t quite remember how I patched this up, but I’m sure there was a general contestation in the room. No wonder. Agreeableness is not just one of the five personality traits; it is that rare product of natural and sexual selection that makes our species rise above the dictates of our selfish genes. In its gentle form, agreeableness imposes itself on people to give them the capacity for kindness and benevolence, a desire for egalitarianism and social justice, and a motivation for human altruism and social progressivism.
So here I was. Caught with no rocks in hand and sitting on a hard chair, in front of a man who, with all his volatility and capacity for dominance and aggression, had many stories to tell about the times in which he paid good attention to the mental states of others – as the 5-year-old personal bodyguard of a girl with Down’s syndrome, as a care worker with immigrants, as the teacher with ‘problematic’ children and with inmates, and as an inspiration to the brave men who follow him and Man Up. Not to mention anything of the fact that Jon had been kind enough to respect my wish to ban ‘inappropriate’ language during this episode.
I scanned Jon again, this time hoping to see the rating for agreeableness tattooed somewhere on his skin. Here was a male proud of his manliness and also a man that can be valued as a good friend and coalition partner. I could feel the processing unit in my head heat up. Secretly I thought of Jon as an agreeable person. Publicly I went for a more disagreeable version of the truth.
Finding the middle ground
I blame my conclusion on the fact that Jon and I differ in perspective and approach, and that although, as the science predicts, we can complement each other on many fronts, there will be matters on which it is best to keep a safe social distance. Having said that, there is nothing that prevents us from joining the forces of our strengths together, and share some of our openness. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller advises, if, when it comes to the battle of the sexes, we can find a way to collaborate and to show people on the extremes that there is a middle ground, then we can be conscientious enough to care about our own fitness as well as that of others; extraverted only to the point that feels comfortable; agreeable with attention on where the boundaries should stay; and just a little bit neurotic with advantage. If it’s about exchanging insights on how we can create the type of narrative about the relationship between men and women that our children deserve to hear, then I’m in. As long as it’s just like my experience on Jon’s podcast: great fun.