Temperament: Apollo and Dionysus, grasshoppers and ants, Greeks and Germans

“Germans struggle with a national envy” according to a recent New York Times opinion piece.* The article was concerned with Germany’s ambivalent attitude toward bailing Greece out of its current fiscal turmoil.  With Greece at a budget deficit nearly 10% of its gross domestic product, compared to 1.5% for Germany, and Greek unemployment (second quarter, 2011) at 16.3% while Germany’s is 7%, it is the classic grasshopper and ant story.  The usual reason for assuming that Germany will gnash its teeth but come through for Greece is that Greece must be rescued in order to save the European Union and thus save the German economy.  However, the writer, Todd Buchwold, suggests that there is a deeper motive–that the disciplined, rigid, and economically successful Germans are “searching for a missing part of their soul:  passion.”  He adds “Today, Germany still looks too Apollonian.  Companies like BMW and Siemens conquer industrial markets by manufacturing flawless, perfectly timed motors.  But when do Germans experience the fun of Dionysus?  Only when vacationing in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.”

So, in this view, the German ant is both pissed at the Greek grasshopper and jealous of its carefree and joyous existence.  Does the ant/grasshopper distinction exist as a temperament difference in humans?  I would say clearly yes.  There are intimations of this in the Big Five measure of Conscientiousness, at least on the ant side.  Not as clear as the ant is the Big Five equivalent of the grasshopper, who would be merely unconscientious, having a lousy work ethic and miserable ability to plan ahead.  Moving over to the MBTI, though, the grasshopper would gain some qualities to offset his self-indulgent, unproductive self.  Grasshopper would be more free and flexible, more able to take joy in the moment, and more able to relate to other grasshoppers, to grasshopper music and to the beauty of the day.Well, that is excessively anthropomorphizing the grasshopper, but move this to the level of the Greeks and Germans (as groups, not individuals) and there is probably a lot of truth there.  Our Greek would be much more often an MBTI Perceiver and our German an MBTI Judger. I would guess also, although without any way to provide evidence, that there would be more Greek Extraverts and more German Introverts, pushing these grasshopper and ant tendencies further along.

As I argued in a recent blog, strong versions of these preferences probably produce both strengths and weaknesses on each side, and very strong versions may carry the seeds of their own destruction.  It is one thing to laugh, love and get merrily drunk in the noonday sun, but quite another to give yourself so many play days, siesta hours, and early retirement perks that someone else may have to rescue your country before you collapse into anarchy.  On the other side, the same fierce discipline, superb time management, and incredible ability to defer gratification, might contribute to delusions of master-racism, or at least a cold contempt for the lesser mortals around you.  At the least it is not hard to see how the strongly task-driven individual might give little attention to cultivating deep relationships, communicating with and understanding others, and savoring the moment.

So, does the German Judger really long to be a Greek Perceiver?  My personal experience with people who have strong preferences is that this is pretty synchronous with their experience of life.  Judgers cannot truly imagine why anyone would be happy living in structural chaos, perhaps involved in three or four interesting projects but getting none completed, and more generally, having no plan for tomorrow.  Perceivers cannot imagine why anyone would schedule their life away, keep a constant to-do list and just run like robots from one must-do task to another, entirely missing the beauty and joy of each day.

This idea that people generally like the temperament preferences that they have is based on individuals, not on groups.  Would it be true for a national character?  Does a national character actually exist?  My reading of opinion on this is that this is another controversial idea with older ideas of national character being rejected as hereditarian or racist or both.  What remains would seem to be an assumption that any sort of national profile that might exist is a learned, cultural phenomenon, developed over time as a basis of such factors as geography, tradition (wherever that came from) and long national experiences in and between nations.

Hmm.  My own private theory about it goes more like this:  Where there is a distinctive trend in some particular direction it is because a certain temperament type dominates.  This type was more likely to migrate into an area, or a different temperament type was more likely to migrate out of an area, or one type was likely to survive or not survive (e.g. in a cold or otherwise inhospitable climate) with the result that one characteristic type came to dominate.  This might be by sheer numbers (critical mass of some sort) or by having traits that made them rise in society by some force of personality.  That is all very vague, but possible.  The cultural effect in this model would initially be the result of the temperament of many individuals, but would ultimately become a force of its own, acting back on all members to some degree, and developing institutions that reward the favored temperament traits.

An interesting example of this idea is the more favorable view of shyness and humble behavior in Sweden as compared with the US.  The authors of Culture as a Context** note that “Unlike the United States, Sweden has a long social and political history of valuing humility and reserve, and devaluing the bold, self-promoting behavior that is so highly valued by Americans.”  As one explanation for this they note that Sweden had one of the very highest rates of emigration from Europe to the American/Canadian new world, with many emigrating for better employment and better job conditions, and add “Thus there might have been some selective migration in which the people who were the least willing to be humble and reserved left of a more congenial climate.”

Back to our Germans and Greeks then, you could speculate that the ebb and flow of many tribal forces in early European history left a somewhat different mix of people in each of these countries, who then influenced their fellow countrymen to develop their nations in the direction that was most comfortable for them.  And perhaps, as that continued many people who were not suited to that shuffled around to find a more suitable national home.  It might not be that the temperamentally task-oriented German longs to be more Greek, but the German who does not have a strong innate dose of this may indeed tire of living in a pervasive Germanic world.

Going back to our shy, humble, and probably somewhat inhibited Swedes, there is also a theory or combination of theories that suggests that early migrational movements to colder climates increased the body’s production of noradrenaline in order to raise body temperature, and this, in turn produced more shy/timid/fearful individuals who were, also, more often blue eyed.***  Other studies have indicated that both fearfulness and Introversion is also associated with thin body builds and narrow faces, while broadly muscled bodies and wider faces are associated with Extraversion and bolder temperaments.  Fascinatingly, this seems to hold true for dogs also, with whippets and greyhounds being among the most nervous and fearful, and laborador retrievers among the most exhuberantly outgoing.

Both blue eyes and thin faces/thin body builds are particularly associated with northern Europeans while the brown eyes, broad faces and heavier builds are associated with southern Europeans.  All this suggests that our Swedes may have been shy and humble even before emigration weeded out the bolder ones.  (Our Germans may have the blue eyes and possibly Introversion, but something else must have been added from some Teutonic ancestor that produced the great task drive.  Swedes are certainly hardworking, but by all reports  they are more cooperative than competitive, and generally more community oriented.)

Finally, I will leave you to think about folk-dance styles and national character.  Spaniards have the wildly flamboyant flamenco, and Greek dancing is big and bold in all its movements, but—as you progress through northern Scotland to Norway and Sweden, the upper body stops moving almost entirely, with all action confined to the feet.  Coincidence ??


*Buchholz, Todd (9/26/2011)  Germany’s Mediterranean Envy.  New York Times, Online.

**Kerr, M.  (2001). Culture as a context for Temperament:  Suggestions from the Life Courses of Shy Swedes.  In T. D. Wachs & G. A. Kohnstamm (Eds.) Temperament in Context, Erlbaum:  London.

***Kagan, J. (1994). Galen’s Prophecy, Westview Press:  New York

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3 Responses to Temperament: Apollo and Dionysus, grasshoppers and ants, Greeks and Germans

  1. Lars says:

    Some interesting thoughts. I’m german and its true that many germans envy the mild climate, gregariousness and easygoing lifestyle of Greece, Italy and Spain, but at the same time we complain about their carelessness and bad working morale (complaining is also an innate german trait ;).

    It’s surely true that you can attribute some traits more to one nation than to another. But i think its very hard to pin down from where a countrys spirit originates, because this includes complex historic happenings. To analyze this would be subject of a lifetimes study.
    There are also regional differences everywhere. Surely everyone knows of holiday regions which boast about their gregariousness and openness, and of some other regions where folks are said to be especially grumpy.

    • INTJ says:

      Hi Lars. It is interesting that you are German, because Germany is the second most frequent country for hits on this blog–second only to the US. I have no idea why, but am fascinated.

      • Lars says:

        Thats really interesting, because the Mbti is relatively unknown in Germany. Apart from people who are really into personality tests nobody knows it here.
        I have a german language site about it since 9 years ( http://www.typentest.de ), but apart from this there is only scarce information in german to find on the web.

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