Tag Archives: individualism

The Paradox of Our Multiple Selves

        Auguste Renoir: The Conversation

 A person who is “the same with everyone” is perhaps not as well adapted to their social environment as we might think.

Anyone studying human communication will soon realize that there is a built in paradox that pits our assumptions about personal authenticity against convincing evidence that effective communication requires many selves.  There are those famous words from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. . .” 

And there’s this reliable contradiction: while we long for connection to individuals who will not say the wrong things in the wrong places, we also want reliable friends we can count on to be their predictable selves. If these two ideas aren’t at odds with each other, they are surely going in different directions, explaining why even those we know best can still disappoint.

Variations of what’s called “role theory” in sociology and “dramatistic ratios” in communication emphasize the consummate role-player.  Each posits that, over time, we become  performers able to manage how we present ourselves to others.  We have many faces: whatever a setting requires.

Imagine some of the roles that may exist for a young woman with her own family: mother, wife, daughter, granddaughter, friend to a prickly neighbor, friend to others who don’t like the prickly neighbor, employee, church committee chairperson, weekend campaigner for a social action movement, and so on.  Any of us who interact with “Meg” will know her by mostly what she says and does.  But we are also not likely to see her in all of her other roles, something of a blessing for her.  If she is reasonably well adjusted, she plays her parts well.  In essence she is a one-person repertory company, since each setting puts her in front of a different audience.  Meg may tell racy jokes over drinks with some friends. But she’s a different kind of person with her children, her parents and certainly those folks at  the church where she helps out.  A person who is “the same with everyone” is not as able to deal with their social environments as well as we might think.

The challenge for us is that, while we express enthusiasm for the idea of “personal authenticity,” the odds are great that we would be uncomfortable with individuals who struggle to meet the different normative expectations of different “audiences.”  Violations of these expectations in the forms of unusual behavior and ill-chosen words would probably be enough to make us want to put some distance between ourselves and Meg.

Think of all the one-off individualists we celebrate in the movies (characters created over the years by Walter Matthau, Jack Nicholson, James Cagney, Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew Mcconaughey, Dustin Hoffman, Lena Dunham or Vince Vaughn.)  Character actors often give us individuals who seem to have been cut from a different cloth.  But even though they attract us to screen narratives, their characters might well repel us as friends.  In the flesh, we love our adaptable companions.  Role-taking oils the social machinery that we would prefer to run smoothly.

People diagnosed on the autism spectrum are sometimes less able to read social cues. Many discover that by memorizing common social “scripts” they can still manage in what would otherwise be bewildering settings.  To be sure, many have compensating strengths, like better resistance to the kinds of distractions that plague many of us.  Even so, like those for whom the social impulse comes more easily, they can appreciate the value of  the daily shape-shifting that is part of making one’s way in the world.

The Self-Referential Bore

Caravaggio's Narcissus  Source: wikimedia.org
Caravaggio’s Narcissus
Source: wikimedia.org

Given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

For some years Rod Hart at the University of Texas has been using software to “read” large quantities of presidential speeches to discover characteristic patterns of phrasing. One category simply codes how many times the speaker is self-referential, using “I” verses “we,” “you,” or “us.”  The overuse of “I” has always been a reasonably reliable indicator of how self-focused and self-absorbed a person is. By inference, we can wonder if such a person needs their communication partner to be anything more than a passive foil.   Richard Nixon scored high as a self-referential speaker, as did Gerald Ford.  Nixon was so self-focused that he would sometimes talk about himself in the third person, as in his comment to the California press that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Psychotherapists are especially tuned to hearing this kind of retreat into the self, often interpreting a string of self-referential statements as evidence that an individual is locked into their a very narrow and personal frame of reference. This is especially evident if a person has a partner but never uses the more inclusive “we,” or if the singular form is used as perhaps an unconscious way to distance the individual from family or friends. There are exceptions, but we expect such an individual to be less able to sympathize, identify with others, or listen with useful accuracy.

Some cultural wags have observed that societies such as ours, with its overriding emphasis are on the individual are by definition narcissistic. Contrasting Chinese or Japanese norms tend to favor first consideration for the collective good. So it’s a common complaint that in America personal needs often trump concerns for what would help a group or community. At its worst, this can lead to what the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “private wealth and public squalor.”

It strikes me that our focus on individuals and their happiness is both the glory and curse of American life. A local college advertises for students with the misplaced slogan, “It’s all about you.” A bank ad a few years ago proudly showed an obviously wealthy executive suitably ensconced in a high-floor office filled with mahogany and glass. The caption that went with this pitch for a setting up a “wealth management” account was the breathtakingly myopic, “You did it all yourself.”

Really? What were the ad’s copywriters smoking when they wrote this?

Only persons totally in love with themselves could be so blind to the many forms of support—parents, mentors, schools, service sector workers keeping our national infrastructure more or less in tact—who played their part in helping the rest of us enact out versions of the American Dream.

As we choose our words we need to ask whether we’ve earned the right to be exclusively self-referential. That privilege is surely evident if we are talking about our feelings and opinions.  We are the only ones that can own them.  But given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu