THE FOUR TENDENCIES by Gretchen Rubin: A Book Review from a Questioner

The Four Tendencies is a personality framework that describes how different people handle expectations. 

Upholders readily accept outer and inner expectations
Obligers readily meet outer expectations but struggle with inner expectations
Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations
Questioners readily accept inner expectations but struggle to meet outer expectations

None of the tendencies is the “best” one to have. It’s not about achieving a goal of the “perfect tendency,” because there isn’t one. Rather, each tendency comes with its own set of challenges and benefits. How we manage our own tendency (and those of others) is what makes the difference in our daily lives.

I am a Questioner, for sure. I ask a lot of questions. I tend to only follow rules if I think they make sense, which means I’ve had issues with authority figures at times in my life. But if I understand and support a cause or have respect for a particular boss/teacher/parent, I have no problem following those rules or meeting those expectations. I actually tip towards Upholder at times, following rules that others may discard because I have a respect for that particular governing body or because I see the reasoning behind the rule. Fortunately for my own employment purposes, I have always gotten along well with my boss (since 2009 when I started)! I do as he asks because I respect him and consider him reasonable (for the most part). If I didn’t respect him, though, I think we’d have unfavorable run-ins. I do worry what would happen if he leaves the company before me and I have to get used to someone new. I’d love to know for sure, but I’d guess he’s an Upholder.

I married another Questioner, and this pairing seems to work well for us. We understand the extensive research each of us has to do before buying into something (either literally or figuratively) and we appreciate this about each other. I know that, if he feels strongly about which vacuum to buy, he must have read reviews and done price comparisons, so I trust his judgment. He knows that I’m not just arbitrarily buying Kerrygold butter over the cheaper generic brand, so when he does the shopping he buys what I prefer (FYI- it’s because it’s from grass-fed cows and therefore more nutrient-dense and worth the money). Questioners tend to not like being questioned themselves, so this could cause strain on a Q-Q relationship. However, this fortunately doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue for us.

By putting words and explanations behind certain decisions I make and reactions I have, I have come to understand and accept myself more. I feel validated by knowing my tendency, but I don’t feel boxed in by it. Plus, I like learning about myself.

A quick anecdote about a revelation I had once I knew I was a Questioner:

In 6th grade I was on a volleyball team. During games there were 3 matches, and if one team won the first two matches then we often wouldn’t play the third. One day, the opposing team won the first 2 matches but I noticed we were setting up to play a third anyway. I remember asking, “Why are we playing the third match?” and someone said, “For fun.” I thought, “Great!” and I was put in to play. I wanted to make sure I didn’t misunderstand the previous score. I wasn’t very good and I was excited to be playing. We were all in position and about to start when the whistle blew and I was called off the court. My coach said to me, “I heard you asked why we were playing the third match, and if you don’t think there’s a point to it then you don’t deserve to play.”

I was devastated, and I cried and cried. I felt accused and labeled. If only my coach had known I was merely a questioner who was curious about the day’s events versus being an unmotivated player, I wouldn’t have had this experience that upset me so much that it stays with me to this day. Gretchen Rubin has opened my eyes to aspects of my personality that I knew were there, but maybe didn’t acknowledge or accurately label. I can’t speak highly enough of this framework, and I think this is because it’s so applicable to daily life. It’s not just placing labels on people. This insight can truly change which decisions and commitments we make and can improve the quality of our relationships.

Each person (yes, everyone) will fit into one of four categories: Upholder, Obliger, Rebel or Questioner. From there, one can tip towards an adjacent tendency, but will likely maintain their main tendency for life. 
Some find it off-putting to be “labeled” like this (ahem… rebels) but it’s not meant to pigeon-hole people or say that all Questioners, Rebels, Obligers and Upholders are just like one another. It addresses how we respond to expectations specifically, and helps us understand how we can form habits more effectively. If we know what works for us, we won’t waste time trying something that doesn’t fit with our tendency.

A great example of adjusting habits to one’s tendency involves how we handle exercise. I have chided myself for hating group exercise classes because I feel like I “should” like them or want to go. Years ago I signed up for at least 2 13-week Zumba classes and other ones as well at my current gym, and I dreaded actually going once I’d signed up. The Upholder in me never missed a class because “I made the commitment” and the Questioner in me said, “You’ve already paid and you won’t regret working out.” But I hate the feeling of dreading the gym, especially when I don’t inherently hate exercising. I realized I’d just rather do it on my own time (I hated waiting for a 6pm class when I would get home from work at 4), and I don’t need the outer accountability of a scheduled class or an instructor to make me do it. I signed up for a 30-day yoga challenge last year and never missed a day even though it was free and no one knew or cared if I did it. I followed through because I WANTED to do it, could do it on my own time at home (from an app on my phone) and got value out of it. I went to a Zumba class every Monday and Wednesday that I could in grad school. I realize now that I went because A) The instructor was amazing so I actually loved the class and B) Sign-ups weren’t required, so it was always my choice if I went or not each time.

If you aren’t familiar with the framework, exercise classes seem to work best for Obligers because they thrive on outer accountability. However, If a Questioner loves the class and the time is convenient, it could be great for them too! An Upholder doesn’t need someone to tell them to exercise but if they sign up they will go. A Rebel is unlikely to sign up to begin with, but they might skip it even if they’ve paid.

Before reading this book, I felt like I had a good handle on the framework since I listen to Gretchen and her sister Elizabeth’s podcast, “Happier.”

I still recommend the book, though, as it goes into more detail and gives tips on how to have more effective relationships with the various tendencies. 

I hope everyone gets the value out of this book and framework that I have!

Take the quiz to find out your tendency at 

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