What Does Culture Have to Do With the Enneagram?

The Enneagram is a system that applies to all people of all cultures, races and ethnicities. From Nigeria to the Netherlands and from Singapore to the United States, people are using this system to better understand themselves and others.

But, like any many-purposed personality typing system, your experience of the Enneagram can be influenced by a variety of factors, including culture. No one lives in a cultural vacuum. The norms and values that surround you will influence the way you think about certain types and traits, and might even affect how you show up as that type.

What does this mean in practice? Let's take a look.

When you and the world collide

“I’m not proud of this, but ‘class bitch’ is probably what I would have been voted for during my teen years,” says Chichi Agorom, a self-preservation Type 5 and author of the book The Enneagram for Black Liberation: Return to Who You Are Beneath the Armor You Carry.  Having grown up in Lagos, Nigeria, Chichi speaks openly about how Nigerian culture impacted the expression of her personality style.

Nigerian culture leans into Type 8 values—it has big energy and a keen awareness of power dynamics. Directness is valued; showing vulnerability is not. Scoring zero in individualism, the lowest possible score on the Hofstedt scale, Nigeria is also a collectively minded country. Loyalty to the community is paramount and individuality is not supported or praised.

Introverted and bookish, Chichi did not fit the mold of the outspoken Nigerian woman. She preferred the solitude of her bedroom and the company of books to socializing and engaging with her family and church community. Instinct told her that she needed to find ways to fit in, in order to feel safe in a culture that views quietness as weakness. Hiding out in her bedroom wasn’t going to cut it. “The introverted, disengaged Type 5 personality style written about in most Enneagram books is almost not allowed in Nigerian culture," she says. "The reaction to that behavior would be something like 'what is wrong with you?'” 

Chichi didn’t feel safe expressing her internal world in her external world so she adapted. Her Type 5 mind sought ways to feel protected and conserve her energy. Satisfied with her small-but-tight group of friends, she would react coldly to newcomers’ attempts to interact with her, and then with meanness if they kept trying to socialize. “I was cruel but I would go home and sob because it was so draining to go to school and be this very armored person.”

Three thousand miles away, Dutch-born and raised Linda, who prefers not to give her full name, echoes the same feelings of alienation: “I don’t feel welcome in my own country.” As an Enneagram Type 2 who automatically picks up on the feelings of others in a culture where stoicism is expected, her experience in her native land is a difficult one. 

“Even today, Dutch culture is heavily influenced by the World War II experience of over 70 years ago. There is a thread of fear that runs through the culture, and hard work without complaining is the expectation. There isn’t a lot of room to discuss feelings. As an emotional person, I feel very unseen in my culture,” she says.

The risk of mistyping

Since culture shapes our behavior and perceptions, one unintended consequence can be mistyping. 

“For several years, I thought I was a Type Two, the helper,” shares Amani, an Egyptian woman living in Cairo. Big-hearted and relationship-focused, she resonated with many elements of the Type Two description. But Egyptian culture itself places a big emphasis on family. It has a Hofstedt score of zero for indulgence, which means that focusing on the needs of others before your own needs is something the culture might expect. 

As Amani pursued more Enneagram training, she began to resonate more with Type 4.  “I started to see myself in the descriptions of feeling overwhelming melancholy and the endless search for perfect love. When I heard that Type 4s feel that question 'why does that person have something I don’t have?' a light bulb went on.  I realized I’m not a Type 2, I’m a Type 4!” she says.

The topic of Enneagram and culture is a ripe one. At the recent International Enneagram Association Conference in Egypt, Enneagram expert Beatrice Chestnut facilitated a discussion where panelists shared their challenges with typing amid cultural overlays. Type 5 Enneagram teacher Uranio Paes admitted that people have a hard time believing he really is a Type 5. “But they don’t understand Brazilian culture. I’m a Brazilian Type 5!” he said. Enneagram professional Nhien Vuong shared a similar story. Mistyped as a One at the beginning of her Enneagram journey, she now owns her Type 3 Vietnamese-American identity and contends that many Type 3 descriptions are reflective of a predominantly white-male America. 

Type 5 Chichi moved from Nigeria to the United States when she was 17 years old. Like many immigrants, she adapted her behavior to fit in. “Coming from a collectivist culture where fitting in equates to safety, I sought to to fit in when I moved to the United States. I saw that Americans prioritized politeness and flattery over honesty and directness like in Nigeria." 

In the United States, she learned how to express softer, more vulnerable emotions, something that didn’t feel allowed in her prior environment. She was so successful at blending in that when Chichi learned the Enneagram in her 20s, her teachers suggested she was probably a Type 4, as they felt she reached out towards others too much to be a Type 5.  Chichi believed she was a 4 for years. The confusion persisted until she went to an Enneagram intensive training. “When I listened to the Type 5 panel, I related to almost everything that group said.”

With self-inquiry and reflection, Chichi realized that her drive to engage with others was learned behavior, based on a new set of cultural expectations. And when she reflects on her journey, she acknowledges that cultural changes played a positive role. “It has been a catalyst for pushing me out of my comfort zone since my norm was unacceptable. I couldn’t stay disengaged and thrive either in the United States or in Nigeria. It probably helped me on my personal growth path.”

A fish in water

For every person who feels mismatched from their culture, there's another whose internal world aligns almost perfectly with their external environment. “I feel like a fish in water!” says Type 3 Cindy Leong, the founder of The Enneagram Academy in Singapore. “The culture is a meritocracy that values hard work and competition. I fit right in.”  

People generally enjoy well-being benefits if their internal world matches their culture. A study from 2020 polled over 2.5 million people from over 100 countries, exploring the so-called “person-culture match effect.” The results were fascinating and in some cases, surprising. Some, but not all, people feel a greater sense of wellbeing and self-esteem if their personal characteristics match those of their culture. 

But it’s complicated. All sorts of factors from religious beliefs to the personality of friends and family members can influence a person’s well-being outcomes. Some personality styles do not enjoy well-being benefits at all, regardless of how much they fit in with their culture. Someone who is high in the Big Five trait of Openness to Experience, for example, actively seeks variety and contrast from sociocultural norms, and fitting in may bring a sense of boredom rather than a sense of wellbeing.

In other words, fitting in comes with its own set of challenges. When I ask how this personality-culture alignment has impacted her journey with the Enneagram, Cindy shares that she’s had to directly enlist the help of friends and family to support her personal growth work. Her attempts at work-life balance and accessing her full emotional spectrum aren’t valued by Singaporean culture so she’s had to compensate. 

In Closing

While the lens of culture brings its own unique challenges, it also offers a valuable opportunity. The very process of finding your Enneagram type is part of your journey to self-awareness, and those who wrestle with the cultural overlay may ultimately end up with a deeper understanding of their true self. And that, really, is the point.

Lynn Roulo
Lynn Roulo is an Enneagram instructor and Kundalini Yoga teacher who teaches a unique combination of the two systems, combining the physical benefits of Kundalini Yoga with the psychological growth tools of the Enneagram. She has written two books combining the two systems. Headstart for Happiness, her first book is an introduction to the systems. The Nine Keys, her second book, focuses on the two systems in intimate relationships. Learn more about Lynn and her work here at LynnRoulo.com.