Type A Personalities Are Overachieving Monsters

One of the things you get used to, when you live in New York, is encountering a large number of people who preface their statements with this phrase: “I’m a type A personality, so...”

In the last couple of weeks, I have heard the phrase used by an American woman in the final stages of pregnancy, discussing her “birth goals”; a British woman discussing the difficulties she’d been having with “the help”; and a website devoted exclusively to “alpha parents”, which I gather means parents who think very highly of themselves.

Whatever the context, using the words “I’m type A” is often a prelude to some form of conversational douche-baggery.

The people identifying as type A in these circumstances use the term as a synonym for success. Type A, in common parlance, is an advertisement for the self along the lines of: Hey, I may be a bit maddening at times, but it’s only because I have higher standards than you. Anyone who objects to the way of the A-type is merely displaying her position further down the evolutionary chain.

So universal is this interpretation of type A that it has become a principle of marketing. The New York Times just ran a story about Unplug, a new meditation franchise that has opened in Los Angeles, specifically offering “meditation for Type A personalities” and – brace yourselves – “a SoulCycle for meditation”. (Unplugged may be brilliant, but this particular sales spin is bonkers: meditation seeks to dismantle the very hierarchies and categories of achievement upon which the pitch relies. SoulCycle, on the other hand, is about re-reinforcing those categories by pretending the stationery bike you’re on is a mountain that you are conquering – a mountain probably made out of cash and the skulls of type B personalities.)

The funny thing is, this is not at all how the term “type A” was initially intended to be used. It first reached the mainstream in a 1974 book called “Type A Behavior and Your Heart” and its 1996 follow-up, “Type A Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment”. These books were not written by a psychologist but by a cardiologist, Dr Meyer Friedman, who described the type A category in mostly negative terms, as a group of angry, thoughtless people whose behaviour put them at heightened risk of a heart attack. You know who else was type A in this schema? Hitler. (Sorry.)

Anyway, since then, the meaning of “type A” has been appropriated by monsters of overachievement – or at least politely self-conscious entitlement. For those who so actively use the term, type A is made to do a lot of work in a sentence, pulling off a kind of sleight of hand that reconstitutes rudeness or bad behaviour as the inevitable side-effect of ambition. Type As in this context send food back in restaurants, yell at cab drivers and bully their personal assistants with the impunity of those on a plane so much higher than the rest of us. It’s not even their fault! I mean, what do you want from them? They’re type As. As a clinical diagnosis, it is the ultimate humblebrag.

Things might have been different if Dr Friedman had chosen other letters of the alphabet as frames for his theories – Gamma and Delta, say. It’s the hierarchical nature of “A” and “B” that has caused all the problems. The British woman who told me she was type A was someone I had called to get a reference for a woman I was thinking of hiring. She was OK, she said, although not quite snappy enough to suit type A personalities. “What personality type are you?” she said.

I was taken aback. “Er ... it depends,” I said, and of course my fate was instantly sealed. Type As scorn ambivalence. A dreadful silence opened up in the conversation.

To be type A or just to be: the categories encourage and launder shitty personalities – and that’s largely unhelpful. It’s possible, one would presume, to be overachieving without being the jerk who yells at the guy working the double shift on minimum wage. Or to be decisive and effective without being totally full of yourself. In its current form, the celebration of type A turns everyone into a 1980s iteration of a Wall Street banker.

So I have an idea. Next time someone looks pleased with themselves and says to you, “I’m a type A personality, so...”, why not gently interrupt them. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to help?”

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