On Being a Questioner; Or, How Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Helped Me Better Understand Myself and Others

Caye Caulker, Belize

Caye Caulker, Belize

My mom used to tell us kids when we were growing up “if you are unsure about something, you need to ask.” It was a statement she repeated to us quite a bit, as I’m sure she wanted us to check in with her before doing something we didn’t really know how to do—like use the blender or fry an egg—but I’m equally sure that her statement intended to save her time from cleaning up our messes and mishaps. As a compliant firstborn who took all instruction to heart, I was always comfortable asking a lot of questions even when I didn’t need to simply because I didn’t want to get it wrong. Questioning myself (and others) has it downfalls, in that either (a) I can come across as challenging others’ judgements if I ask too many questions, and (b) I need to make sure that by asking questions, I’m not undermining my own authority and experience.

I didn’t really realize that being Questioner was part of my make-up, and not something that my mom taught me to do, until reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, a book about habits. I picked up Rubin’s book after listening to her on Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe’s podcast Balanced Bites. What’s key here is that understanding how we develop habits has a lot to do with how we respond to inner and outer expectations. Rubin writes, "When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we respond to expectations."

Are you one of those people who loves setting New Year’s Resolutions—either because you like to start the new year with a goal, or because you feel like you should? I don’t. I scoff at New Year's Resolution making, actually.  Because it’s an expectation that doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, maybe that expectation is either implicit or explicit depending on what kinds of circles you run in, but I realized a few years ago that I don’t really care about setting habits during the beginning of the year. And I certainly don’t care that “everyone else” is doing it or because it might be a tradition or yada yada yada. I want to be able to set habits whenever I want to. Not when it’s the popular thing to do. (And this is where Rubin’s point about expectations affecting habits made a lot of sense to me.)

In Rubin’s research on habits and expectations, she realized that there are four tendencies to how people respond to expectations. People are either Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, or Rebels, according to Rubin:

  • "Upholders respond readily to both outer expectations and inner expectations."
  • "Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified."
  • "Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations."
  • "Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike."

As a Questioner, I question expectations (asking “why”—a lot). I don’t mind meeting expectations if they make sense to me. So, if you knew me as a kid, or you’re wondering why I tagged myself as a “compliant firstborn,” it’s because, as a kid and young adult, it made sense to me to follow my parents’ expectations. It made sense to me to listen to my mom because—as I told myself—(a) she’s in charge, (b) she’s mom, so she must know better, and (c) I don’t want to get into trouble.

Rubin explains that Questioners are “motivated by reason, logic, and fairness. They wake up and think, “What needs to get done today, and why?” And this is what I do. I think about what needs to be done each day (or by month or semester), and then I decide what I want/need to accomplish and why. Again, it’s always “why?” So, if there’s a deadline, that’s a perfect reason why to meet an expectation. Or if I want to send out an article by the end of the summer, that’s also an excellent reason why. So, if upholding others’ expectations makes sense to me (which it usually does because I don’t like disappointing others), I’ll do it. 

What resonated the most with me about Rubin’s tendencies is that understanding people’s tendencies is freeing. When I realized that I, as a Questioner, questioned people’s expectations because it was a part of me and not just an annoying habit I had, I better understand the other people in my life. So, how does this impact the world around us? For one, the Rebel student won’t (always) ruffle my feathers when s/he is rebelling against my expectations. Or the colleague who is an Obliger? Well, now I better understand why s/he goes above and beyond to keep people happy when I could care less. Realizing that people’s tendencies has less to do with me and more to do with them has helped me understand and respond to discussions, disagreements, and arguments in a different way.

People’s tendencies are just that—parts of people. When people question my questions, or when people get annoyed with my questions, they are questioning and pushing against my tendency. I’m not trying to be annoying. And I’m certainly not purposely challenging authority. But I want to make sense of it all, so I can decide if and how I want to respond to expectations.

Now, this isn’t to say that Rebels won’t question or Obligers won’t rebel. And it’s also not to say that Rebels should be given free-reign to rebel, or that Obligers should be given free-reign to oblige. These tendencies have their downsides, too, if they are allowed to get out-of-control. In fact, on Rubin’s podcast, Happier, she discusses at length the four tendencies and how to get along with people who have different tendencies. I encourage you to check it out episode 013 (for an intro on the Four Tendencies) and episodes 035-038 (the Four Tendencies explained in detail).  

My greatest takeaway is that we don’t need to be offended, affronted, or annoyed by other people’s tendencies. It is what it is. Working and living with Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels just means that we each have a natural way of responding to expectations that are different. And the sooner we realize that it’s not always about us, the better relationships we’ll have with those around us.


Are you a Questioner, Rebel, Upholder, or Obliger? Take Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz let me know what you think! Let’s connect on Twitter @GeneseaC or on Instagram @CattingWithAlice.