Why The “Strong Personality” Label Needs Rethinking

“Strong” and “weak” are adjectives that conjure up a range of different mental images and biases whether we want them to or not.

As an example, the person who dominates meetings at work by talking over everyone else may be described as having a strong personality, when in fact they’re just a belligerent prick. By comparison, the quiet person who generally keeps their opinions to themselves unless asked for them directly may earn contempt for having a weak personality, since they’re not as loud or assertive as the former.

Labels like this do a startling disservice to both of these people, for several reasons.

Strength Isn’t Always A Good Thing

First of all, the word “strong” is generally assumed to be a compliment: strength is a trait that most people are programmed to aspire to, so when someone is said to have a “strong personality”, that’s often considered to be a good thing. This kind of thinking can be established in early childhood, when a kid who throws things and bosses other kids around elicits chuckles because of the so-called strength of his character.

Behavior like that, when indulged, is reinforced as being culturally acceptable. Extroverts are considered the superstars of the workplace, and actions that may be described as “loud” and “bossy” in childhood translate to being “assertive” and “a great leader” when they get older. You know what that leads to? Narcissistic, sociopathic bullies who get away with treating other people like absolute sh*t because they have always been allowed to do so.

The behavior they exhibit may have little to do with actual strength of character – traits such as integrity, courage, honor, and fairness – and more to do with posturing and intimidation. It’s more than likely that belligerent people in positions of power have gotten there thanks to nepotism rather than by their own merits.

It’s also important to note that the “strong personality” label is often used as a derogatory description when used for a woman. When directed towards a female employee, for example, that label might imply that she is abrasive, difficult, and opinionated; basically, traits that are appreciated in her male peers, but condemned when she exhibits them.

There’s some food for thought, hmm?

Perceived Weakness

On the flipside of cultural acceptability is the perception of being weak. Think of all the ways in which the word “weak” (or its synonyms) are used in derogatory expressions, implying that which is negative. The “weakest link” is the most useless, broken piece in a chain, and will inevitably cause everything to fall apart. Someone who is “weak-willed” is perceived as a flake; lacking in integrity and the ability to withstand even a tiny bit of pressure.

What is it that would make us assume that a person is weak, just because they’re not loudmouthed and argumentative?

Those who are quiet may very well be far stronger than you might expect. The man who speaks softly in business meetings may have learned to do so after years spent caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s or a child with severe developmental delays – he may have experienced situations that would have broken another person, but instead he came through his trials with grace and dignity intact. Oh, but he’s gentle and soft-spoken, so he must be a meek and weak person. Right?

By that same token, women are generally assumed to have weaker personalities than men because most don’t assert themselves as often as they could. Or should. (See being difficult and abrasive above.)

People who are selfless and giving rather than demanding and selfish are frequently perceived to be weak, and traits such as compassion and empathy are often sneered at. That says a lot about us as a culture, doesn’t it? In our modern Western society, narcissism and sociopathic tendencies are lauded and admired for their strength, while humility and kindness are scoffed at.

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Strength And Weakness Often Have Nothing To Do With Behavior

What a person is really like inside isn’t always evident by how they conduct themselves.

Think of it this way: little yappy dogs will bark and yip and snap at the ankles of everyone around them because they have a raging inferiority complex and a need to prove how tough they are. Wolfhounds, by comparison, are calm and quiet unless pushed to extreme circumstances. They don’t bark or nip at people because they don’t feel the need to do so.

The same goes for many people: little (not to be confused with small in a physical sense) pissants with chips on their shoulders will often swagger around and do all they can to bully others in order to prove their worth. Those who are secure in themselves and aren’t megalomaniacs are usually quite content to be quiet unless they have something worth saying. They are not “weak;” they are content with who they are and don’t feel the need to snarl and posture to prove their worth.

The next time you think about judging someone’s personality as being either weak or strong, take a moment to really weigh the criteria upon which you’re basing your assumptions. What you observe to be true, and what is really true, aren’t necessarily the same.

Let’s rethink the labels that we’ve been slapping on people for far too long, and see if we can come up with descriptions that are a bit more appropriate.

Maybe instead of talking about a “strong” personality, we can use different words, depending on the descriptions we’re trying to convey. If the person is bossy in a less-than-wonderful way, words like “forceful” or “domineering” may be appropriate. If their behavior is admirable, then “assertive” and “compelling” would work well to describe them.

Similarly, rather than use “weak” as an adjective if we’re not trying to criticize a person, we can use words like “gentle” or “courteous” or “gracious”. If we’re trying to describe a less-than-assertive personality, maybe “amenable” or “apprehensive” might suit them instead.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.