November 25, 2019

"The Four Tendencies" - An Upholder and A Questioner Square Off

Please note that this post is not sponsored in any way.  I’m not affiliated with or receiving payment from anyone – I’m just sharing my thoughts and experiences with you. 

Two years ago, New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Rubin (some of you may remember her from “The Happiness Project”) published a book called “The Four Tendencies.”  I read the book when it was first published, and just recently finished reading it for the second time.  I wish she had written it sooner.  Like back in the first decade of my marriage instead of the fourth.  That way, Alan and I could have easily avoided 478,296 repetitive disagreements and had 478,296 laughs instead.

There are a number of popular personality tests available including the Disc Assessment, the Winslow Personality Profile, The Holtzman Inkblot Technique and, probably the best known of all, The Myer-Briggs Type Indicator.  While acknowledging the validity of these more mainstream personality tests, Ms. Rubin points out that you can learn an awful lot about yourself by asking one single question: “How do I respond to expectations?”

Based on Ms. Rubin’s in-depth research into human nature, she determined that people fall into one of four basic categories or tendencies when faced with that particular question.

Upholders – meet outer expectations and inner expectations
Questioners – resist outer expectations and meet inner expectations
Obligers – meet outer expectations and resist inner expectations
Rebels – resist outer expectations and inner expectations

I know what you’re thinking.  Yeah, that's great.  But what does all that have to do with camping?  Well, just wait and see.

The above descriptions detail how the four tendencies respond to expectations, but the really interesting stuff comes when you understand the correlation between personality and the way each group handles expectations.

Upholders – meet deadlines and keep New Year’s resolutions and appointments; they like to know what’s expected of them and don’t like making mistakes; it’s easy for them to decide to act and then follow through; they keep commitments and don’t require much supervision; they are intrigued by rules and laws (and follow them); they find law, in general, interesting; and they love schedules, routines and to-do lists.  On the downside, upholders can appear rigid and inflexible to others; may become disapproving and uneasy when others in their company misbehave; find it difficult to change plans at the last minute; and may have trouble delegating because they feel that others can’t be depended upon to do a project or do it right.

Questioners – love information, logic and efficiency; they don’t like anything that’s ill-reasoned, ill-informed or ineffective; they do what makes sense to them even if it means ignoring the rules or other people’s expectations; they question everything and everyone, even their bosses; they tend to do their research, make a decision and follow through without a problem once they have adopted a task or habit as an inner expectation; they love spreadsheets; they decide whether or not they’ll follow a rule on a case by case basis; they enjoy sharing the knowledge they’ve learned during their extensive research, and like to improve processes and make things run better; they want to know why.  On the downside, family, friends and colleagues may think questioners argue for the sake of arguing and may find the many questions annoying or disrespectful; questioners don’t like to be questioned themselves and often operate on a need to know basis which is frustrating for those who live or work with them.

Obligers – meet deadlines, keep promises; volunteer and follow through for others; they struggle with internal or personal goals like maintaining an exercise program, losing weight, completing an online course or starting their own company; they make great leaders, team members, friends and family members due to their sense of obligation; of the four tendencies, they get along most easily with the other three, and are the ones that other people count on the most.  On the downside, obligers may snap if the burden of outer expectations becomes too much for them, refusing to continue to meet the overwhelming outer expectation.  Some obligers accept outer expectations so easily that they may feel obliged to do things that no one is actually expecting of them.  And it is difficult for an obliger to be successful with an inner expectation unless some type of accountability exists.

Rebels – want to act from a sense of choice, freedom and self-expression; they want to do what they want when they want and how they want; the ability to choose is very important to them; they resist control (even self-control), and often enjoy flouting rules and expectations; they’re free of many pressures that the other tendencies face because they only do what they choose to do; they enjoy  meeting challenges and will drive themselves hard to do so; they want their lives to be a true expression of their values.  On the downside, Rebels resist almost anything they perceive to be an attempt at control (even such things as a party invitation or a standing meeting) which can create frustration and difficulties with the many people in their lives; they resist schedules and may cancel plans at the last minute; they may change jobs frequently to avoid being limited by a label or trapped in a particular identity; they resist boring or mundane tasks sometimes to the point of serious consequences; and they have learned that when they simply refuse to do something someone else will pick up the slack.

Wow!  Do you recognize anyone among those descriptions?  I’ll bet a lot of you picked out your own tendency and may have identified the tendencies of some of the people closest to you.  And, if you really want to know what your tendency is, you can jump on over to Ms. Rubin’s quiz to find out (link HERE).  Just don’t get so engrossed over there that you forget to come back here.  Please.

Incidentally, according to Ms. Rubin’s research, the four tendencies statistically break out like this:  Obligers make up 41% of the population; Questioners, 24%; Upholders, 19%; and Rebels, 17%.  Yes, that does add up to 101%; I’m guessing it must have something to do with the way she rounded because I did double check the percentages noted in the book.  If you want to take a guess at what my tendency is, now is a good time to think about it.

In “The Four Tendencies,” Ms. Rubin goes on to discuss variations within the four tendencies - for example, you may be an obliger with some questioner tendencies.  I won’t address those details here, but I truly believe this book is a good read for almost anyone.  Not only is it helpful to know what tendency group you (and others!) belong to, but Ms. Rubin has peppered “The Four Tendencies” with two types of valuable insights - those that teach you how to harness the strengths of your tendency and mitigate its weaknesses, and those that help you deal with others based on their tendencies.  BINGO!

I have to tell you, Alan and I have gone from butting heads in a number of situations to actually laughing about our reactions to various issues.  I can’t believe how much this book altered our perspective by helping us understand why our spouse acts the way he/she does.  Alan is a Questioner; I am an Upholder.  (Did you guess right?)  Life with either one of us is not easy, and spending weeks at a time on the road living together in a less-than-300-square-foot box could easily make it more difficult.

I follow the rules and live with someone who chooses to only follow the ones that make sense to him.  (Aarrrgh!  The rules apply to everybody!)

He likes to make a process as quick and efficient as possible, but I have to go at my own pace.  Step.  By.  Step.  (I know you’re in the middle of something right now, but can you just look up one piece of information so I’m not sitting here dead in the water?!)

So, here’s how “The Four Tendencies” or, more accurately, two of the four tendencies have impacted us when traveling . . .

Mary:  The speed limit here is 45.
Alan:  I’m only doing 53.
When we’re on the road and I’m riding shotgun, I’m always scanning for speed limit and other directional signs, watching for lane restrictions and in search of no parking signs and other things that might get us in trouble.  And I make sure I point them out to Alan who, I’m sure, has already spotted them.  He’s an excellent driver and, truth be told, I should have no fear about him getting us into trouble.  But just because I should have no fear, doesn’t mean I don’t.

Mary:  We only have one more hour until checkout.
Alan:  Relax, Drill Sergeant.  We’ll get it done and what does it matter if we’re a few minutes late.
Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who watches the clock in our house.  Because, you know, we can’t be late!  Yup, I’m the one calling out, “Thirty minutes to departure!” and grousing that we should have left ten minutes ago.  Alan has pointed out to me at different times that we weren’t on our way to an appointment or “Don’t worry.  We’ll get there on time.”  In other words . . . Chill.

Alan:  Did you turn off the heat and the water pump yet?
Mary:  I’m still checking things in the bathroom.  I didn’t get there yet.  Just wait!
For every trip we take, I print off a 6 page checklist.  (Of course I do!  Upholders love lists!)  The first page is a list of “Things to Do” before we go and “Groceries” we need to pick up.  The next three pages are the actual packing lists.  And the last two are the “Before We Go” and “Breaking Camp” checklists.  (You might be laughing at my love for lists, but these little babies have saved us from some serious mistakes, and ensure that we leave nothing behind at home or at a campsite.)  Generally speaking, while Alan is outside hitching up the travel trailer, I’m inside making sure everything is safely stowed, windows are closed and locked and all appliances and systems are turned off.  I have my routine and I like to stick to it.  I start in the bedroom, work my way through the bathroom and then make a counter-clockwise circle through the living area, checking things off in my mind as I go along.  Then I sit down at the dinette with the checklist, cross off everything I’ve done and go back to check anything I’ve forgotten.  When Alan finishes hitching up, he comes in to see if there’s anything left to be done inside.  When he starts asking about miscellaneous things on the checklist, I get, well, perturbed.  Why?  Because he’s messing up my routine and I don’t like it.  Not one little bit.

Mary:  Don’t forget to put the bread away and your dirty knife in the dishpan.
Alan:  I’ll clean it up later.
I expect family members to clean up after themselves after they’ve put a meal together.  Right away.  Alan can’t see the point of taking the time to clean up when he’s hungry and his lunch is waiting.  “Later” isn’t a crime, is it?  Apparently, it’s not if you’re a Questioner, but it definitely is if you’re an Upholder!

Mary:  We should really tarp that wood.
Alan:  We’re only going a mile and we’ll take it easy.
When we’re planning to bring a load of firewood back to the campground in the bed of the truck, I’ll suggest that we put a tarp over the wood to prevent any of it from bouncing out.  I have visions of dents in the truck or, worse yet, damage to a car behind us when a piece of firewood launches itself from the truck bed and lands on the hood of the car.  After all, many places have laws prohibiting traveling with uncovered material in a truck or on a trailer and I’m an Upholder!  Alan, of course, questions the necessity of covering the wood.  The campground is a mile away down a quiet, paved road and we’ll be going slowly.  So, he determines that we don’t need a tarp.  I, on the other hand, worry all the way back to the campground because . . . I’m with someone who is behaving badly.

Alan: Can you come here and hold these pliers tight on that thing-a-ma-bob?
Mary:  What’s going to happen to that thing-a-ma-bob after you loosen it up?
Alan:  Just hold the pliers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten annoyed because I can tell Alan has the big picture in his head but he won’t share it.  (Of course not!  He’s a Questioner and operates on a “need to know” basis!)  I don’t need a detailed mechanical explanation of the problem (and, admittedly, might not understand it if he provided one) but, really, can’t you at least tell me what’s going to happen with that thing-a-ma-bob because I’m worried about it falling on my head.  He actually has the nerve to get annoyed with me because I HAVE QUESTIONED THE QUESTIONER.  You laugh.  Actually, we laugh because now we know it’s true and why.  Boy, oh boy, does this all make sense! 

Now, you might be chuckling at the examples above but, let me tell you, patience has been worn thin and tempers have flared on more than one occasion related to topics like these.  It ain’t pretty, people.  Each of us was 100% certain the other person was WRONG.  However, in the context of our own individual tendencies, every single thing we thought and said made perfect sense – even if it irritated the other person to no end.  Reading “The Four Tendencies” opened my eyes to the fact that Alan and I approach life in very different ways.  An oft heard comment around our house is, “You’re a piece of work.”  Most of the time it’s said with a smile.  Most of the time.  Sure, we always knew there were differences between us, but now we know why some of those differences exist.  While neither of us will change our ways, simply being aware of the how and why of looking at things differently has effected a change in how we relate to each other.  Now, instead of getting annoyed, we can more easily diffuse a situation with smile and a comment.  “Hey, Mr. Questioner, could you please just take a minute to explain this project so I know what we’re doing?”  Or, “Listen, Upholder, I know it says “No Parking,” but you’ll just be in the store a minute and I’ll be right here so I can easily move the truck if I need to.”  There are certainly fewer bumps in the road of life these days, and that’s a good thing.  Gretchen Rubin, where were you when we needed you 40 years ago?!

If you've taken the quiz and are willing to share your tendency with the rest of us, please do so in the comments below!

Look what I came across while reading about “The Four Tendencies!“

“How do you get an Upholder to change a lightbulb? He’s already changed it.
How do you get a Questioner to change a lightbulb? Why do we need that lightbulb anyway?
How do you get an Obliger to change a lightbulb? Ask him to change it.
How do you get a Rebel to change a lightbulb? Do it yourself.”
Warm wishes to all of you for a safe, happy and blessed Thanksgiving!


  1. Hey Mary - I not sure where I fall yet in those four tendencies, but I see brothers CAN think alike. Yes, I think Tom fits in the questioner category right along with Alan. Inherited or learned, who knows, but they CAN frustrate!!! I think that book should be required reading before marriage! 😉 And THIS...sounds VERY familiar...I HAVE QUESTIONED THE QUESTIONER...(happens almost daily here)

    1. Hi, Joan! Oh, yes, I can definitely see Tom as a Questioner! If he reads this post, please let me know what he thinks about falling into that category with Alan. Meanwhile, I'll mention your comment to Alan - I'm curious about his reaction, too. I don't recall how I stumbled upon this book, but I am definitely glad I did. Talk about the proverbial lightbulb going off - wow! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your cousins!

  2. My Tom is a Questioner and I am an Obliger. However, after 30 years of marriage I am trying hard to be more of a Questioner...just to make my man crazy.

    1. Based on what I read (and personal experience!), I do believe that questioning a Questioner definitely garners an interesting reaction. I could see smoother sailing for a couple if both were Obligers or Upholders, but I do have to think that relationships with two true Questioners or two Rebels would lead to a rough road at times. Thanks for chiming in with your tendencies!

  3. Obliger here (with so much obliger rebellion that sometimes I might be a rebel, maybe), married to a Rebel. It's fun, isn't it, to see how others respond to your altered communication because you know their tendencies? :)

    Thanks for commenting on Kristen's blog so I can add a new reading bookmark.


    1. Thanks for stopping by, Karen, and welcome! I hope you'll come back soon and often. Kristen over at The Frugal Girl is delightful, isn't she?

      It amazes me that Gretchen Rubin was able hit the nail directly on the head with her research and observations on this. I can't tell you how many times Alan and I have been able to laugh about our tendency quirks while avoiding a frustrating situation. As an Obliger, I can see how the holiday season might be a bit difficult for you to get through - all those extra obligations! - so I hope you'll make some time just for yourself to enjoy what YOU want to do!


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!