Are Certain Social Traits Changeable Or Not?
When it comes to changing or improving interpersonal skills a somewhat contentious question is whether certain social traits or preferences can even be changed in the first place. Everyone has their own opinion on this, and I don't think there's a single right answer. The question itself raises a lot of issues.
Perspectives on whether change is possible
Let's say someone has decided their life would be better if they could change aspects of the way they socialize. Maybe they want to enjoy group activities more, and be more motivated to spend time with people. It doesn't really matter what trait I mention here. Pretty much every one is going to get a range of responses.
The "Change isn't possible" camp
People with this opinion feel that the trait in question is a core, unalterable part of someone's personality. It's a natural tendency, like being left or right-handed. They believe that any attempts to change it will ultimately fail and end in frustration. Someone with this view may think just that one trait is unchangeable, or they may have a more general belief that our personalities are set in stone, or that "people just don't change."
If someone appears to have changed they may say something like:
- "He's just behaving differently on the surface. Deep down he's still the same."
- "She hasn't changed. She just temporarily suppressed her true nature. It'll come back eventually."
- "He thinks he's changed, and some people are fooled, but if you pay attention to how he acts, his old traits are all still there."
- "If she truly has changed then she didn't really have that trait in the first place, or it wasn't strong. If someone really had that trait, change wouldn't be option."
- "Well, if she seems to have changed, she didn't have trait X after all. She really had traits Y and Z, which look like trait X on the surface. You can change Y and Z, but not X."
Some people have come to this conclusion through their own experience. They may have unsuccessfully tried to change a part of themselves. Maybe they'll tell you how they really, really tried to make themselves be chatty and outgoing at work, and enjoy going to rowdy parties, and how it all felt so forced and unnatural. After years of failure and feeling something was wrong with them, they finally found peace by deciding to accept themselves the way they were.
The "Change is possible" view
For the exact same trait someone else may believe that it is possible to change it. Of course, they may believe making the change will take effort, especially if it goes against the person's nature, but it can be done. They may also believe the change is only possible if the person really, truly wants it for themselves, and isn't just half-heartedly going along with outside pressure. Finally, they may think not everyone can change that part of themselves, but at least some people can.
Even if they don't put it into words, they may see a someone's personality more as the set of habits and behaviors they've tended to use up to this point in their life. Those habits and responses may be very comfortable and ingrained, but there's nothing stopping someone from learning some new ways to approach the world. They may generally believe people are too quick to say, "That's just who I am. There's nothing that can be done about it."
Again, some people arrived at this opinion through their own experience. They can tell you how they used to be very unsociable and liked sitting in their basement and playing video games all day. They'll explain how they once truly believed it was just in their nature to be solitary and not really enjoy other people's company. Then they decided to change, and now they're more outgoing and sociable than they ever thought they could be. They'll say they feel like their preferences toward socializing have changed at a core level.
Someone in this camp may also hold the view that everyone likes socializing deep down and they just need to have enough good experiences with it to realize that. They may believe some people have a lot of negative memories and accumulated baggage about the social world. When they think, "I can't change. It's just not in my nature to be social", they really just feel that way because their experiences to date have led them to believe that. If they have some better ones their views will come around.
The middle ground
Most people probably aren't at one extreme or the other. An in-between perspective is that people's personality traits start at a certain point and have some wiggle room, but can't completely be altered. So if someone is a 40/100 on the 'outgoing' scale, they may have the capacity to move up to a 65, but anything beyond that is unrealistic.
The beliefs that follow from each view
Someone's take on the question of whether change is possible will color how they see the idea of themselves or other people changing a particular trait. Each set of opinions below is totally reasonable too, if you accept the central idea regarding change that underlies them.
Change is possible
If someone sees a trait as changeable, they'll be open to the idea that they or other people may want to try to alter it. Like if they see shyness as changeable, they won't have a problem with someone buying a book on how to overcome it.
A darker effect of this perspective is that someone who holds it may be unsympathetic to people who are having a hard time because they fall outside society's idea of what socially "normal" is. Their attitude may be, "Well if you're clashing with your co-workers because they think you're not social enough, then why don't you change so they won't bother you?" Of course, someone could believe change is possible but also be tolerant of differences in how people socialize.
Change isn't possible
On the other hand, if someone sees a trait as unchangeable, they'll react more negatively to the suggestion they should change, or even advice about how other people could change. If someone thinks a social trait is unchangeable they'll also tend to see it as a variation in human personality, and not a flaw they should have to fix. They'll feel other people should learn to be more accepting and understanding of it. If they feel they've been pressured to change for a lot of their life, they may be fairly resentful at being expected to do something they think is impossible.
Their opinions may even seem to take on more of a political flavor. They can interpret the idea of their social trait being changeable as their identity being disrespected, misunderstood, not tolerated, or even persecuted. They may say things like, "Society is set up to oppress people who like spending time alone."