Modern ways of testing character
January 26, 2007 1:11 PM   Subscribe

"Therefore a gentleman sends a man to a distant mission in order to test his loyalty..." What are some modern ways in which to discover others' true character?

Recently reading Montaigne, I came across his suggestion that children be taught to "sound" everyone they meet, no matter who he or she might be, in order to discover his or her true character. And I came upon this quotation from Confucius:

Therefore a gentleman sends a man to a distant mission in order to test his loyalty. He employs him near by in order to observe his manners. He gives him a lot to do in order to judge his ability. He suddenly puts a question to him in order to test his knowledge and makes a commitment with him under difficult circumstances to test his ability to live up to his word. He trusts him with money in order to test his heart, and announces to him the coming of a crisis to test his integrity. He makes him drunk in order to see the inside of his character, and puts him in female company to see his attitude toward women. Submitted to these nine tests, a fool always reveals himself.

What are some modern ways of carrying out this sort of thing? I am thinking not only of people who might work for you, but of anyone you might like to know better.
posted by mjklin to Human Relations (43 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
I say have an argument / discussion with them. Anyone who is actually prepared to defend their views sensibly, without getting angry, and who can deal with someone disagreeing them, whatever their views may be is alright in my book.

Linked to this, I think that anyone who is prepared to change their point of view when they realise that they're wrong is a good person worth knowing.
posted by minifig at 1:21 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The way someone treats a waiter or waitress is surprisingly revealing. Cheap, rude, disrespectful people with a sense of entitlement are remarkably oblivious to this fact, which is handy for those of us who like to keep the number of such people in our lives to a minimum.
posted by scody at 1:34 PM on January 26, 2007 [9 favorites]

Ask the person about his or her spouse or partner. You can learn a lot about someone that way.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:40 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The way someone treats a waiter or waitress is surprisingly revealing.


I've found it useful to observe people outside of their known or safe environment. Is someone who prefers a dark pub able to act gracefully at a swanky restaurant? Can a that city hipster enjoy themselves honestly and un-ironically in a backwater industrial town?

I always think people who can rise to an occasion, and are willing to tone themselves down (or up) to fit into any situtaion are good people. It's a trait that I aspire to develop.
posted by generichuman at 1:41 PM on January 26, 2007 [5 favorites]

Actually, they dont have to enjoy themselves, but are they respectful enough to pretend to do so, so as not to offend those around them with an "attitude."
posted by generichuman at 1:43 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thirding scody's idea. The way people treat servers is usually indicative of their general respect for their fellow human beings. And general respect for fellow human beings is high on my list of qualities that indicate good character.
posted by vytae at 1:43 PM on January 26, 2007

Well, from the Gay Viewpoint (tm), I've found that coming out to people is a pretty surefire way to get a grasp on their character. Granted, it's contingent on how the LGBT person in question handles their own side of the discussion, but I think it was the single flash point in my own life where I discovered pretty quickly who my real friends were.
posted by mykescipark at 1:48 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Play hockey with them.
Seriously. 5 minutes and you know everything about a person's laziness/work ratio, team thinking, aggression balance, capacity for gutter talk and beer intake. What more is there? I suppose other sports might work too, but IMHO hockey is the best and fastest at showing one's raw underbelly.
posted by dness2 at 1:51 PM on January 26, 2007

A friend's mom used to say "Never marry someone until you've played a board game and gone on a trip with them." Those probably don't test character as much as tell you if they're going to make you crazy.
posted by BluGnu at 2:03 PM on January 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard to know someone's real character without conflict. Someone who can apologize gracefully and also accept an apology gracefully has character. Just being cool and great all the time isn't really a test of character at all.

Acting right in unfamiliar situations seems more a test of worldliness than character. Some people just aren't aware of their prejudices (re: coming out) and might not be cool in rough situations. But if they can acknowledge their effect on others and deal with it, they have good character. E.g. maybe your right-wing Christian mom throws a temper tantrum when you come out to her, but sees how wounded you are by her reaction and how you seem to have thought about it thoroughly, and so she spends two weeks educating herself and comes back to you to apologize.

Character is learned. Learning from mistakes takes, and enhances, character.
posted by tk at 2:03 PM on January 26, 2007 [10 favorites]

You can learn a lot by watching how people treat animals. In my experience, those who are callous toward animals are usually not good people, and those who go out of their way to hurt animals (including lower creatures like harmless bugs) are almost always worthless human beings.
posted by vorfeed at 2:18 PM on January 26, 2007

Lend 'em twenty bucks.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:39 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Having your car towed and retrieving it from central towing will tell you a lot about your companion in this.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:49 PM on January 26, 2007

Best answer: Things to ruminate on:

-Are there people you'd rather not introduce this person to? If so, why?

-Do you ever feel that you need to explain or apologize for this person? If so, why?

-Ditto generichuman: Can you take the person into an unfamiliar situation and feel confident that they will find a graceful way to handle themselves?

-What makes this person angry? What does the anger stem from—embarrassment? Feelings of abandonment? Fear of something intangible? A passion for the topic at hand?

-Along those lines: what does this person fear, and how is that fear evidenced?

-To what degree is this person self-aware? Does this person engage in contemplation on some level? Does this person understand the relationship between actions and their consequences?

-Does this person's intellect manifest itself in a quick, darting way, or in slow rumination?

-Does this person display a sense of congruence and style in selecting attire?

-Does this person show interest in the affairs of others?

-What hobbies or pursuits does this person engage in?

-Ditto MrMoonPie: Who does this person most trust and rely upon? What are this person's friends like?

-What was this person's family life like? Does this person come from a fractured family background or a solid familial foundation?

-Upon what basis does this person make decisions?
posted by limeonaire at 2:51 PM on January 26, 2007 [6 favorites]

see what happens when they have to take responsibility for something going wrong: do they blame themselves or someone else?

that tells me all i need to know about someone.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:11 PM on January 26, 2007

-What was this person's family life like? Does this person come from a fractured family background or a solid familial foundation?

Can't say I really get judging people based on things beyond their control. Isn't it more about how they deal with the hand they were given?
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:14 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

The "server" test can be applied to any situation of social or wage inequality. How does your employee treat the person who empties her trash? Does she brownnose people with authority over her?

I also find it instructive to see what a person's like when lit -- not necessarily drunk, just a few cocktails are generally enough.

And of course, if you really want to know who your friends are, don't just check if they'll help you move -- see what time they actually show up. Mr. Showed Up At Three O'Clock Just in Time to Throw The Last Box In The Truck and Drink Our Beer fails the Confucius test even if he is nice to his damn wife and has a way with dogs.

(I agree also with drjimmy11: if I were to use the solid family foundation metric I'd lose most of my friends, and they'd lose me. So, no thanks.)
posted by melissa may at 3:25 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stressful situations. A long road trip is perfect, because you're going to get sick of being in the same car as each other, you'll disagree about what you should be doing, you'll probably get lost at least once, and may even have a breakdown or accident. Situations like these tell you a lot. Camping is a pretty good one too.
posted by adamrice at 3:33 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You could be like V and setup an elaborate prison/torture scenario, stripping every vestige of hope and humanity from the person, forcing them to reset their entire personality to the basic default and thereupon you have uncovered their true character. But you're going to need roses and an electric razor.

Seriously, there are a few real-world tests that you could use to gauge character, and I don't believe creating contrived situations will reflect well on your own character, once the illusion has been lifted. Unless the person sees you as a mentor or something, this will probably just make them see you as a manipulative jerkoff.

- I heartily agree with the waiter test - and even if you find yourself dining with an asshole, at least you got fed.
- How the person treats animals is good, but also, how the animal treats the person. I have dogs that are excellent judges of character. When they bark or avoid someone, I pay attention. If furious tail-wagging ensues, you can usually trust the person. Or check their pockets for bacon. In which case, you've found someone who has access to bacon and that's always good.
- Get 'em good and drunk. Then you'll not only find out what kind of drunk they are, but what their default emotional state tends to be right after they wake up, when they're bored, or when they're tired.
- Golf with them. Whether you're good or bad at golf, the way they interact with you, their environment, and that stupid little white ball really tells a lot about how they compete, how they adapt and react to situations, and how much they cheat. But don't golf with them if they're really good at golf, cuz those people are frustrating.
- Tell them about a good book/article you've read recently, and ask if they've read anything good lately. Gauges whether this person will have anything interesting to talk about and flags them for being intelligent.
posted by krippledkonscious at 3:38 PM on January 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

drjimmy11 and melissa may: Note I didn't say what conclusion you should draw from knowing someone's family situation. What I meant by including that as a question is this: Learning about one's family background helps you draw deeper conclusions about their general behavior patterns than you otherwise would be able to. What those conclusions might be will vary. In general, I'd personally give someone from a background like that more leeway with regard to a range of behaviors.

But yeah, I didn't mean at all that you should judge someone upon the basis of factors beyond their control like their family situation growing up. I just mean that given, say, two people with the same general behavior patterns and such, I'd consider the one from a fucked up family background more extraordinary than the one from a more "normal" background.

(Not phrasing it particularly eloquently today, but I think you get the idea.)
posted by limeonaire at 4:03 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I really like Limeonaire's tests excepting three seriously weird criteria:

-The (already mentioned) family thing-I'm with drjimmy and melissamay on that.

"Does this person's intellect manifest itself in a quick, darting way, or in slow rumination?"- Who cares? The speed at which someone thinks doesn't necessarily have anything to do with their character.

-Does this person display a sense of congruence and style in selecting attire? This pisses me off, and I hope it's a joke. How on earth are you going to judge someone's character from their clothing? If you're looking for some sort of fashion sense to judge someone's character, that is beyond messed up. For example, It eliminates most of the academics I know, many of whom are incredibly good people.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I try to avoid people who judge others for their fashion sense.

I also like scody's server test.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:07 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ugh. That was an awkward sentence there, about 'eliminating academics' so I'm going to try again:

I know many academics who are wonderful people, but totally lack a sense of style. They might not be able to pick a top that matches their shoes, or realize that the cut of their pants isn't flattering, but I wouldn't hesitate to trust them with personal matters of great import.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:15 PM on January 26, 2007

Okay, here's where I'm coming from with this:

The word character encompasses an entire range of things—this is inherent in the form of the question itself, which seeks a measure of others' true character. This implies not that we're seeking a single abstract construct "character," that one might possess in some quantifiable way, nor that we'll be content with any one person's measure of "character," but rather that we need a way of figuring out where on this big, broad, abstract continuum known as "character" a person lies.

Does that make sense? See the following definitions of "character" from Merriam-Webster:

-"the aggregate of distinctive qualities characteristic of a breed, strain, or type [a wine of great character]"

-"the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation [the character of the American people]"

When you think about it that way, perhaps you'll better understand why I came up with the questions I did. My questions are meant to provide a kind of rubric for thinking about other people's tendencies, proclivities, and ethics in aggregate, as a complex of traits, not to provide the ultimate answer to what "good" or "bad" character might be.
posted by limeonaire at 4:25 PM on January 26, 2007

I see. I thought the way the question was phrased implied that the poster was after ways to determine one's moral character. I would use many of the rubrics you list to get at someone's moral character, so I assumed your whole post was directed that way.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 4:38 PM on January 26, 2007

People who don't have friends of long standing or family to whom they wish to introduce me, particularly if they are over the age of 35, do not regard me highly, or are highly likely to be trying to con me. People who trade cars at intervals of less than 2 years invariably have issues. Adults who can not command the respect of children do not deserve much respect. Children who can not, or will not behave in public become dolts as adults.

As for real work instances of testing personal integrity, I am always reminded of one of my first jobs.

"... thinking about other people's tendencies, proclivities, and ethics in aggregate ..."

That's a horribly slippery slope, limeonaire. Down at the bottom lie all the ugly "isms" like racism, sexism, ageism, and most of the ugliest ethnic and religious jokes I've ever heard. Having some small experience of the Green, pardon me if I just don't play.
posted by paulsc at 4:39 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

One of my most frequently used measures of the character of other people was mentioned already- how does that person speak of other people when they are not there? What flaws do they see in other people? What qualities do they approve?

I've noticed that people quite frequently dislike people with the same flaws that they possess. It's not failsafe, but at a minimum it certainly gives you an idea of what kind of qualities they think are valuable or useless.
posted by winna at 4:42 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Backpedal until you're all the way to last week, but you can't save it, Limeonaire.

What does a fractured family background or a solid familial foundation even mean? "Are your parents still married to each other?"

In general, I'd personally give someone from a background like that more leeway with regard to a range of behaviors.
I'd consider the one from a fucked up family background more extraordinary than the one from a more "normal" background.

So... because my parents got divorced, I get to be more of an asshole without you calling me one than someone whose parents are still together? What if my parents were gay? How much of an asshole could I be then? Let alone -- what is " 'normal' "?

posted by Methylviolet at 4:45 PM on January 26, 2007

One of my college professors believed that a good test for character was, "whether they're interested in what they're interested in."

Makes perfect sense to me.
posted by pril at 5:03 PM on January 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Work with them, Live with them or lend them money and you will find out their true character.
posted by jacobean at 5:37 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Ask them to help you with something.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:37 PM on January 26, 2007

I generally boil the waitperson test down to: How does this person treat strangers, people without influence and others who, maybe in their perception, "don't matter." Hateful driver? Bzzt. Callous towards the homeless? Bzzt. Rude to subordinates? Bzzt. Cruel to animals? Bzzt. Cruel to children. Bzzt. Delights in others' suffering? Bzzt.

Generally we're looking for golden rule, empathy stuff. It's important to recognize the difference between true empathy and rote empathy. In my view, empathy is something that's felt by the empathizer, but instead it is usually confused with an action--you "give" empathy to someone else. On the extreme end, sociopaths are folks who don't really experience empathy, they just fake it to fit in with everyone else.

On preview: I don't think limeonaire's being given the benefit of a doubt. Some of the controversial "ruminations" (limeonaire's word) could be used without bias in context. Quick examples: "Taking account of resources (both physical and internal), how does this person dress at a funeral and to what motive?" "Is this person quick to anger because of childhood induced PTSD or because they're selfish?"
posted by Skwirl at 5:42 PM on January 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I don't like the server test, or the "is nice to animals" test, because I can think of too many counterexamples of fucked-up people who would have passed those tests with flying colors.

I think that being nice to servers, and treating animals well, are necessary but not sufficient conditions of good character; i.e., if they fail either of these tests, they have demonstrated they lack character, but it remains possible that they still lack character despite passing these tests.

For example, some very fucked-up people are greatly concerned with what strangers think of them --- so they will be lavishly nice with servers --- but they treat their friends and family like shit.

Other very fucked-up people have horrible relations with people, but are incredibly sympathetic and loving to animals.

I think a comprehensive test of character has to involve numerous metrics, which must be assessed over time, because character is not one "thing" -- it's numerous things that we group together under one word, and I suspect that there are no items that are absolutely essential to having good character, as long as other items are there in abundance.
posted by jayder at 5:43 PM on January 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Regarding the waiter test:

I am very polite to waiters and waitresses. I say please. I say thank you. I never complain about anything. I smile. I tip generously. I generally try to be as nice, pleasant, and polite as possible.

I'm also a jerk.
posted by Flunkie at 5:59 PM on January 26, 2007

The more I think about this, the more I think it's pretty stupid.

Quit trying to test people and just talk to them. Shoot the breeze, ask some political, religious questions and you'll know. a five minute bullshitting session can tell you a lot about a person's moral character.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:06 PM on January 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

This will get shot down in the bat of a fly's eye, but as much as I care for the welfare of servers, animals and children (pass with flying colors), there wasn't much about decent virtues that date back a good way.

Loyalty. Why test? How?
Honor to parents?
Fealty to the State? (k, you've got me on that one)

limeonaire has it closest.
posted by vers at 6:21 PM on January 26, 2007

I've never been able to develop a comprehensive test or series of tests. I usually just hang with people until they start to seem sketchy or do something that really pisses me off. If you don't make yourself overly vulnerable to people, what's the worst that can happen?

In other words, lend anyone $20. Don't lend anyone $2000 unless you've known for a good, long time.

(And yes, the "family background" thing is total BS. I'm actually kinda offended.)
posted by Afroblanco at 6:37 PM on January 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Sail with them in bad weather.
posted by nicwolff at 10:45 PM on January 26, 2007

Ask them how they would define "good character" ;)

The tone of your question seems to tend towards tests of moral character, and most people have responded appropriately.

However, if you read "character" more as "personality" than heavy moral character, then the tests would be different - perhaps not only about trustworthiness & loyalty, but about slightly softer traits like flexibility, equanimity or clemency.

To give a more concrete "test" for the latter kinds of traits that I don't think anybody has mentioned...observe them driving a car. You might induce a generally selfish attitude from those who do not signal, don't allow others to merge lanes, display aggression and so on. This kind of behaviour might be actively selfish ("my needs override those of others") or selfish by default, by simply not even thinking to take others' needs into account or actively pay attention to what is going on around them.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:53 AM on January 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's not a good idea to rely on such simplistic tests like "good with animals" or "kind to homeless" to test somebody's character. Life is too complex to boil people down to such cliches. Generally people will reveal themselves in their day to day actions and not try to hide much of anything. You rarely have to "test" somebody if you just know what to look for.

But if you are looking for actual tests there's only one I've come to rely upon. The only meaningful test of character is to accuse and confront a person one on one. This is a messy and unpredictable business but it gives results. Accusing can involve anything from questioning of their actions and beliefs to outright declaring them guilty of some wrongdoing to even a physical attack against them. "In the hotseat" most everybody will quickly show their true colors.

And no, stressful situations aren't a good test of character. A lot of disgusting people will actually shine under stress. Even the lowest of the low can exhibit grace under fire -- especially they're own ass is on the line too.

There is no test for loyalty. Don't assume that just because somebody is intelligent and "loyal to ideas" that they're a person to be depended upon. Loyalty is purely about courage. It has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. It certainly has nothing to do with class or any generalized socio-economic issues. (In fact, I'm tempted to say you see more loyalty among the poor and disenfranchised but the situation isn't that simple.) All you can do is put people in situations to prove their loyalty and hope for the best. Many will fail to rise the occassion since courage doesn't exactly grow off trees but that's life. Once somebody has proven their loyalty then you are actually in debt to them and so normal economics takes over. It's actually this continual exchange of debts and value that really defines loyalty but it all begins with an initial payment in good faith.

Finally feel free to judge people by their so-called superficial features. How somebody dresses, talks, walks, behaves, their humor etc. is usually an intentional and deliberate signal on their part about their character. There's no reason not to take them at their word.
posted by nixerman at 7:21 AM on January 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

Nixerman, what you do mean about accusations as a way to judge of character? That you'd make up some reason to confront a person in order to test his mettle? In by boko, that maneuver would show the tester's own extreme lack of character -- if not borderline psychopathy.
posted by footnote at 2:44 PM on January 27, 2007

All I can say is I didn't immediately break it off with a girl who was terrible to a waitress once, and I did it at my peril.
posted by jon_kill at 5:59 AM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the perennial measurement: the strong handshake. That's really more of a measure of man-to-man dominance, IMO, but a lot of people strongly correlate dominance & leadership with "character". (I don't.)
posted by LordSludge at 12:19 PM on January 29, 2007

In other words, lend anyone $20.

Be careful, they might just ask for your blender next.
posted by beth at 3:51 AM on January 30, 2007

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