Culture of Character: A Relic From the Past

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What is a culture of character? How does it differ from a culture of personality and which does society currently default to?

A culture of character is the idea that people in society are judged on their ethics, values, and reliability. In contrast, a culture of personality relies on things like charisma and likeability.

Read more about how American society has shifted from a culture of character to a culture of personality, and what that means for introverts.

Moving Away From a Culture of Character

U.S. society has not always promoted extroversion as the ideal. Up until the start of the twentieth century, the focus was on a culture of character rather than personality. The ideal person was serious, self-disciplined, and moral. How you behaved in private—your virtue—was more important than outward charm or impressing others. (Exceptions were sometimes made in politics, where brashness drew admiration and votes.)

A shift from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality” occurred at the turn of the century in response to a convergence of economic forces, including industrialization; migration from rural areas to cities; and the rise of retail giants such as Woolworths, J.C. Penney, and Sears Roebuck.

In retail, it became important to make a good impression on others with whom you had no past connection, in contrast to interacting with people in small towns whom you’d known all your life. This new culture of personality was a departure from the former culture of character. The burgeoning retail sector needed a different kind of employee—a gregarious salesman with the ability to get along with anyone and be comfortable in any situation. Having a “good personality” became paramount. At the same time, Americans developed a fascination with celebrities, further elevating charisma over character.

A Boom in Self-Help

Self-help advice, advertising, and psychology fueled the transition from a culture of character to a culture of personality. You had to sell yourself, not just products. And to do that, you had to be a performer.

At the forefront of the personality transformation movement was Dale Carnegie, founder of the Dale Carnegie Institute and author of best-selling books, including How to Win Friends and Influence People. The son of a poor Missouri farmer, Carnegie was impressed in 1902 by a traveling lecturer who had transformed himself by learning public speaking. Later in college, Carnegie entered speaking contests and eventually became such a successful speaker that others began asking him for lessons.

After college, Carnegie offered a public speaking class in New York City, which was an overnight success. Thereafter, in books and seminars, he touted public speaking and developing a winning personality as essential skills for succeeding in the competitive business world.

Charismatic Leadership

One hundred years after the advent of the culture of personality, we’ve elevated extroversion to hyper-extroversion and equated it with leadership. It permeates the self-improvement industry, business schools, corporate culture, and even churches. But charismatic leaders aren’t as effective as most people think—in some circumstances, introverted leaders may be more effective.

Today’s hyper-extrovert is personified by self-help guru Tony Robbins, whose high-energy workshops on building self-confidence (the $895 four-day entry-level session is called “Unleash the Power Within”) draw thousands. They culminate in a voluntary walk across hot coals.

Robbins has a “hyperthermic” or extreme extrovert temperament characterized by one psychiatrist as “exuberant, upbeat, over-energetic, and overconfident”—which are traits touted as assets in business, particularly sales. Indeed, Robbins is a salesman, constantly urging attendees at his sessions to buy additional higher-priced packages.

At first, the culture of personality urged people to develop an extrovert personality to stand out from competitors. Robbins’s message, however, is that extroversion not only ensures success but also makes you a better person. Selling yourself is a way of contributing to the world. In this view, what some might see as hucksterism is the ultimate in leadership.

Culture of Character: A Relic From the Past

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  • How society overvalues extroverts
  • Why introverts' overlooked strengths are the key to greater success in work, school, and society
  • How extroversion caused the fall of Enron

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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