A friend of mine recently used an expression in Liberian English that I believe gives a profound insight into Liberian culture. The expression was “He/she has a big heart”.
In Western culture, having a “big heart” is seen as a good thing. In our minds, our heart is where our love comes from. If you have a big heart, you have a lot of love. In Liberian English though, saying someone has a “big heart” is a pointed insult. It means you’re saying that they’re prideful, and that’s a serious accusation in a culture where friendliness is one of the most valued personality traits. (In Liberia, friendliness is valued even above basic personal honesty, which can often be a difficult perspective shift for Westerners to wrap their minds around).
I was introduced to this expression during my Liberian English courses with the Peace Corps when I first arrived in Liberia. But two years later, I still hadn’t heard a satisfying explanation of why Liberians saw a big heart being a source of pride. So I asked my friend if he could give me an explanation.
“Well,” he responded, “if I see some people who don’t have a lot of money sitting down somewhere, and I feel it in my heart that I am too big for them, I will not choose to sit with them. I will be prideful.”
As he told me this, he placed his hand on his chest to show where the feeling came from.
The puzzle pieces started to fall into place.
I recalled something I had read many years before… an excerpt by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung as he described his encounter with the Native American chief of the Taos pueblos in New Mexico in 1932:
“See,” Ochwiay Biano said, “how cruel the whites look, their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think that they are all mad.”
I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.
“They say they think with their heads,” he replied.
“Why of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.
“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.
In Western culture we are very intellectually oriented. We value objective truth. We value rational process. We exercise these values and skills as the “right” way to solve problems and make decisions. Our culture tells us to make decisions with our “head”, not our “heart”. Liberian culture, in contrast, seems to be “heart” oriented, just like the Native American tribe that Jung visited.
We actually have an expression for being prideful that exactly mirrors the Liberian one: “He/she has a big head”. “Big-headed” is the western version of the Liberian “big-hearted”. In the Western frame, we say that a prideful person “thinks” that they’re too big to sit with certain people, whereas in the Liberian frame, they’d say that the prideful person “feels” that they’re too big.
It’s important to note that there will be individual variation within a culture. You can find Liberians that gravitate towards being more intellectually oriented, in the same way you can find Westerners that value following their heart. When we talk about a “culture”, we’re talking about trends, about averages, about the cultural narrative as a whole.
You might already be familiar with the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. While it’s true that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator doesn’t really have any scientific basis for psychometric research, I found it to be a helpful framework to discuss certain aspects of personality, like whether an individual tends to be head-oriented or heart-oriented. In the Myers-Briggs framework, a more head-oriented person is given the letter T for “Thinking,” and a more heart-oriented person is given the letter F for “Feeling.” After a little bit of research I found that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test was heavily influenced by Jung’s work on “Psycological Types”, which doesn’t come as a surprise. And I think it’s safe to assume that Jung’s work on psychology was heavily influenced by his multicultural experiences.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator doesn’t just measure an individual’s “head/heart orientation”, it also includes three more spectrums for characterization:
“(E) Extroverted / (I) Introverted” – Does a person feel “recharged” after group activities (extroverted), or after being alone (introverted)?
“(N) Intuitive / (S) Sensing” – Does a person prefer to work abstractly, with ideas and possibilities (intuitive) or concretely, with practical hands-on experience (sensing)?
“(P) Perception / (J) Judging” – Does the person like spontaneity and to go with the flow (perceiving)? Or do they prefer to be well-organized, with structures and schedules (judging)?
There are all kinds of online tests to help you find your own individual Myers-Briggs personality type. Some have slight variations in terms, but in general, they all follow this general idea.
In case you’re curious about me, my personality is pretty flexible: I am an INTJ when I’m working, an ENFP when I’m having fun. (As I mention at the end of this post, I don’t believe personality in this sense is fixed — I think we exercise different parts of ourselves in different situations)
But let’s take our conversation back to our original topic: Liberian culture. What happens when we characterize Liberian culture through the Myers-Briggs (and Jung!) personality framework? Even though the Myers-Briggs wasn’t designed to be used in this way, I think it provides some useful insights. What is the Liberian cultural personality?
From what I’ve experienced here, Liberian culture is very strongly ESFP: Liberians are extroverted, sensing, feeling and perceiving. They love to be surrounded by people and hate being alone, they work with concrete details and “the way things are” instead of abstractions and possibilities, they are “heart oriented” instead of “head oriented”, and they “go with the flow” instead of scheduling or budgeting.
When you put these pieces together and read a full description of the ESFP type on a site like this, you have the best description of Liberian culture that I have ever seen. Seriously, take a look. It catches everything from their sense of aesthetic and sensitivity to others’ feelings, to their difficulties in planning long-term. It’s rather mind-blowing how well it all fits.
Before I went abroad, I had the idea that entering a new culture would be something radically different from anything I had ever experienced before. I imagined that there would be ways of thinking that I couldn’t comprehend and ways of acting that would come at a complete surprise. And on one level, it’s true: I have had to adjust to different ways of living and seeing the world. But really I had already seen and experienced these elements and values of the Liberian cultural personality in friends and family at home.
Before I came to Liberia, I already had relationships with people who were very friendly and liked to “go with the flow”. But I always considered them “exceptions to the rule”, sometimes falling short in areas that we value in Western culture like making logical decisions or planning for the future. What I see now is that there is no “rule”. While it’s true that Liberian culture and other ESFP-leaning people could benefit in some endeavors from more logical decision making or skills for future-planning, those of us in Western culture and on the other side of the personality spectrum could learn a thing or two about friendliness and “going with the flow” as well.
Our current culture and personality type don’t have to hold us back. We can exercise these other parts of ourselves without losing our cultural or personal identity. A Westerner can learn to be more friendly without losing their ability to plan for the future. A Liberian can learn to plan for the future without losing their ability to be friendly. If you say “Oh, this is just the way I am” and stop there, you’re missing out on a whole other world of possibility and experience in life. Through self-examination we can look at our personal tendencies and deliberately decide to exercise other parts of ourselves. If we want to advance as a society, we need to learn how to encourage diversity in personality and culture, not locking people (including ourselves) into a stereotype or expectation. The more we can do this, the more we can experience humanity in all its fullness and potential.