To recap on what The Experiment is, you can hop down a few posts and read all about it. All in all, I asked 47 friends to describe me in 5 words. I got responses back from 30 people, for a total of 150 words. I asked family members, friends from high school, friends from college, coworkers, current friends, etc. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the random people who took the odd request in stride and responded. I’ve had good people in my life.
First, I’ll give some high-level results. Then I’ll dive into my observations. Science!
The top 5 most common words
- Funny (9 mentions)
- Thoughtful (8 mentions)
- Smart (7 mentions)
- Intelligent (6 mentions)
- Kind (6 mentions)
- Runner ups: Creative (5 mentions), Independent (5 mentions), Organized (5 mentions)
The top 5 words are a little misleading because a lot of similar concepts are conveyed with slightly different words. So, here are the most common concepts (with some pretty liberal and subjective grouping of words):
- Smart (27): Thoughtful (8), Intelligent (6), Articulate (2), Bookish (1), Smart (7), Logical (1), Educated (1), Competent (1)
- Determined (20): Independent (6), Determined (3), Ambitious (2), Resourceful (1), hardworking (1), Focused (1), Fearless (1), Driven (1), Doer (1), Daring (1), Committed (1), Capable (1)
- Funny (15): Funny (9), Witty (3), Hilarious (1), Entertaining (1), Dry Wit (1)
- Grounded/sense of self (14): Confident (3), Authentic (1), Unpretentious (1), Stable (1), Sincere (2), Self-possessed (1), Realistic (1), Real (1), Integrity (1), Honest (1), Grounded (1), Genuine (1)
- Kind/loving (12): Kind (6), Loyal (2), Loving (1), Helpful (1), Generous (1), Friendly (1)
- Runner up: Quiet (10): Reserved (2), Quiet (2), Private (1), Pensive (1), Listener (1), Introspective (1), Introvert (2)
Flaws in The Experiment
Yes, as sciencey as this all clearly is, there are some flaws in The Experiment. First, I hand selected the respondents. I didn’t, say, reach out to my ex-boyfriends, or to people who I thought might be weirded out by the whole thing, which ruled out a lot of casual acquaintances. To make this more accurate, I needed a much larger and much less hand-picked sample size. I also didn’t make it anonymous. I’m sure the fact that people were submitting their words directly to me affected words people chose, and definitely decreased the amount of negative words. Interesting note: the majority of people I requested 5 words from were women (36/47).
I was fully prepared to get negative words. I even encouraged negative words because I didn’t want people to think I was just looking for affirmation. Even still, almost no one included negative words. (This obviously means there’s absolutely nothing negative about me, right!?)
I have to say, it’s probably for the best more people didn’t send negative words because, as prepared as I thought I was, they actually really hurt. Well, I guess I should say there are two categories of negative words: there are words other people may perceive as negative, but I fully embrace as either neutral or great parts of me (these are words like stubborn, strong-willed, standoffish, skeptical, and sarcastic), and then there are negative words that I fully recognize as true, but make me very uncomfortable because I don’t like those aspects of myself. These are words like moody. And extremes. And inconsistent. All true. But there is something about knowing other people fully comprehend some of the qualities that I don’t like about myself that is disconcerting.
None of the negative words themselves were surprising, but I was surprised by my reaction to them. It made me realize I might be less comfortable with some of my deficiencies than I might have guessed.
As I was analyzing the data, one thing I did was group the responses based on how I know people to see if I could identify trends. Generally, different groups of people, even from different times in my life, used similar words or themes. Except my family. My family used a lot of the same words that other groups used, but there was also a strong theme of fearless independence. Some words used by my family and no one else: adventurous, daring, fearless, doer, driven, ambitious, and determined. I think this perception is likely influenced by the fact that I just bought a house and everyone has heard an exhausting amount about all my projects. But still. There’s something interesting (and kind of great) about my family having this perception of me.
For most people, I don’t have a way to quantify how their perception of me has changed over time. But I happen to have a birthday letter from my mom that she wrote when I turned 18. I found it the other day as I was going through my pile of sentimental stuff in my loft. In the letter, she included a list of words to describe me. So, now I have a 2004 vs. 2015 comparison:
- 2004: creative, smart, curious, responsible, friendly, athletic, leader
- 2015: fearless, educated, hard working, responsible, resourceful, determined, smart
Not to get all Saussure on you, but not only is there a gap between how I perceive myself and how others perceive me, there is also a gap between what people think/perceive and the words they use to represent their thoughts. Words don’t always feel like enough. As some people gave me their 5 words, I tried to think of 5 words for them to better understand what it was like to articulate someone in such a simplified way. And it was difficult! General feelings, and varied concepts are difficult to articulate, but are even harder to try to distill down to a single word. I think that’s why words like “funny” and “smart” are so common—they’re kind of a catchall. With all these gaps it seems like a miracle we manage to make any sort of connection with people.
One of my regrets with The Experiment is that I didn’t spend more time thinking about 5 words for myself. Right after I received my first 5 words back (congrats, Jon Hastings, you were the first respondent!), I realized I should record my own. So, I took about 5 minutes brainstorm. Had I taken more time, I think I may have come up with something different. But here are my off-the-top-of-my-head-didn’t-overthink-it 5 words to describe myself: independent, smart, creative, stubborn, and open-minded. I also listed some sub words: organized, funny, resourceful, responsible, and genuine.
Interestingly, all of the words I used to describe myself were used by at least one other person except for open-minded.
I wasn’t shocked by any words I received. Almost everything felt consistent with my personality. But what surprised me was the consistency in responses from people who knew me at very different times in my life. I feel very different than I felt in high school. But surprisingly, people who knew me in high school, and people who know me now used very similar words to describe me. So, perhaps I’ve been a fairly consistent person for a long time, but have just slowly come to understand myself better and have become more confident and self-aware.
Overall, it was a fascinating exercise. Fun to get in touch with people I haven’t talked to in years. Interesting to see how people responded to the request. And compelling to have conversations with people about The Experiment that led to discussion about what it means to define yourself and others.
You should do it too. Ask everyone you know for 5 words. You know, for fun. And for science!