Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Surviving and Thriving as a Disagreeable Woman

rebellion of an urban contrarian <r>

rebellion of an urban contrarian (Photo credit: <rs> snaps)

Recent experiences in my professional life have prompted me to write on behalf of cantankerous women everywhere. Having a disagreeable personality (opposite of agreeable) is unconventional and is something that is generally more unexpected or disapproved of when you are female. Does social disapproval impact your tendencies or, dare I say, preferences? Those of you who share this trait along with me know the answer to that question. We’re a stubborn, strong-willed lot.

What does all this mean? Here’s how I would expand on the trait of disagreeableness:

  • You are a contrarian – Whatever others say, you immediately see the counterpoint and experience an urge to take the opposite stance to see if you can make your argument stick. This urge might be particularly strong when you sense that others actively want to bask in the harmonious glow of agreement. Arguing is a fun sport. You feel unease with unanimity and, in contrast, feel more like all is right with the world as long as people are disagreeing with each other.
  • People find you uncooperative, cool, and aloof – Yeah you generally don’t give people the warm fuzzies and you understand what I mean when I say that one person’s sensation of connection or belonging can be experienced as a sensation of engulfment by another.
  • You are a systematic rather than an empathetic thinker – That is, it’s “head over heart” for you. You process information and make decisions in a detached and dispassionate, rather than compassionate way, and aren’t afraid of ensuing social disapproval.
  • You feel a great weight after a day of taking on the appearance of an agreeable person – Exhaustion ensues after not being yourself, but most work situations call upon people to act a certain way and, to some degree, you might oblige. For instance, I’ve often opted to stay quiet and knit my brows when I disagree with someone’s non work-related views (so I stay true to myself and figure this would go over better than anything that comes out of my mouth). To the extent that you pretend, you find that this doesn’t pay off because people don’t see your strengths when you hide them behind the mask of a pleasant, affiliative person. It becomes, “Oh no, you can’t take that position because I don’t think that you can stand up to people and deal with strong personalities!” and instead get recommended to do work that makes you unhappy, like being at others’ beck and call as you are not a “people-pleaser” by nature.
  • Agreeable people find your sense of humor warped – Perhaps you played pranks on people when you were younger. (Maybe you still do!) You’re laughing with tears coming out of your eyes but there’s a deafening silence among those who don’t share your mindset.

Contrarian (Photo credit: quinn.anya)

After a conversation with a trusty disagreeable male friend, we appeared to agree (yeah, boring conversation!) that women are generally expected to be more warm, empathetic, and cooperative than men for whatever reason. Make no mistake though, the pressure to be one way but not another comes from both sexes and I believe that this figures into the difference in earnings (see research posted in Notre Dame News and Chicago Sun-Times).

Going against the grain is enough to make you question your own sanity. Do we need mental help? One lesson from clinical psychology is that a behavior or tendency is only maladaptive IF the context doesn’t support it. Here’s my wishlist in hindsight:

  1. The company of others who understand how your mind works and don’t try to fit you into the agreeable mold but allow you to engage in competitive, conflict-oriented play. Alas, it seems we are a rarity and most others view this trait negatively. However, every “good” and “bad” trait has a good and bad side to it (see Angier, N., 2011 and Oakley, B., 2013).
  2. As above, having a like-minded older and more experienced mentor who again, doesn’t try to mold you, but from whom you can at least learn the tribulations and triumphs of finding your way. Yes, it’s not in our nature to submit ourselves to guidance as we aren’t inclined to put anyone up on a pedestal as an authority figure. (And no, I’m not telling you what to do. This is an informational rant! 😛 )
  3. Also related to the first point, finding a niche that rewards this tendency. For instance, a profession in law would’ve drawn upon my innate tendencies. If only I’d been more willing to endure the dry reading material hurdle way back when I had that chance. (See Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed – text describes disagreeableness though the trait isn’t named explicitly). From Psychometric Success, “Disagreeable people can make excellent scientists, critics, or soldiers. Remember, none of the [Big 5 personality traits] is in themselves positive or negative, they are simply characteristics that individuals exhibit to a greater or lesser extent.”

Nature doesn’t put all of her eggs in one basket. Agreeable people are valuable but you have a role in ensuring a well-functioning society (and organizations for that matter) too. Quote from

You might expect some jobs to require a low level of agreeableness. Think about it: When hiring a lawyer, would you prefer a kind and gentle person or someone who can stand up to an opponent? People high in agreeableness are also less likely to engage in constructive and change-oriented communication (LePine, J. A., & Van Dyne, L., 2001). Disagreeing with the status quo may create conflict, and agreeable people may avoid creating such conflict, missing an opportunity for constructive change.

Some waver in the moderate zone of this personality dimension while others tend to one extreme end or the other. I believe this is desirable as different circumstances call for different levels of skills and strengths. I believe we should not seek to homogenize anything, including people, based on an illusory ideal of what is “balanced” as shifting circumstances can change what is considered “balanced.” In other words, differences are what make humanity so adaptable, so live and let live. Any thoughts?


6 responses to “Surviving and Thriving as a Disagreeable Woman

  1. Necessary and Proper April 5, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    Lynn, thanks for following my blog. I returned the favor.

    First, on the humorous side, here’s a link to an article I wrote to introduce my favorite essay by Benjamin Franklin, written in 1750 and entitled “Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion.”

    Second, you said

    “You are a systematic rather than an empathetic thinker – That is, it’s ‘head over heart’ for you. You process information and make decisions in a detached and dispassionate, rather than compassionate way, and aren’t afraid of ensuing social disapproval.”

    This trait is likely a strong bridge between your blogging topic (at least in this article) and mine — using the origins of political philosophy to analyze the tendencies and (often superficial) justifications of today’s politicians and voters. I won’t “soil” your professional turf here with political ramblings, but I hope you’ll pick an article of mine and leave a comment so we can exchange views. Or drop me an email at the address shown in my Contact tab.

    Have a great day.
    – Jeff

    • Lynn Patra April 5, 2015 at 10:12 pm

      Thanks for visiting and commenting Jeff! As someone who actually ENJOYS going against the grain and being a contrarian, I’ve become very familiar with how this is such a rare way to be in society and has ramifications for my political ideology as well.

      I’ll check out your article and comment now. Thanks for reaching out!

  2. Pingback: on being disagreeable | dangereux pour la sante

  3. cindy knoke October 11, 2016 at 4:33 am

    I just came over here on a hunch, thinking, “You should check, maybe Lynn has posted something.”
    I love your pride in your disagreeableness. Disagreeable people are so interesting.. My husband is one. Of course, I had to be even more disagreeable to him to stop from being this way with me, which was difficult for me since I tend to be too agreeable, which of course is why I prefer the company of birds and animals in general. There is no agreeing or disagreeing with them. It is simpler.
    Now one thing I know for sure. Your bird will not countenance one bit of disagreeableness from you, hence you have to be at least a little bit agreeable.
    It’s only logical.

    • L. P. October 11, 2016 at 4:52 am

      You know the funny thing is Nikita is so much more disagreeable than I am! She’s a rascal with a will of steel who won’t be told what to do! And she scares the bejeezus out of everyone around me. Upon her arrival, my closest friend remarked that I must’ve attracted a kindred spirit. The lovebird I had previously was super sweet and agreeable however (and I know I’ll never forget her). I learned to appreciate each of them no matter where they are on this spectrum. 😀

  4. Pingback: A More Pleasant Breakdown of the Gender “Pay Gap” [Infographic] | Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

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