Tag Archives: role theory

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 Myth of Personal Authenticity

Wikipedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

It’s not only our nature to be role-players, our mental health may depend on it.

One of the more interesting paradoxes about human communication is the high contrast between our admiration for personal “genuineness” against contradictory evidence that we are really many selves. To be sure, there can be no question that a perception of personal authenticity is comforting. We express justifiable contempt for liars, phonies, and acquaintances whose deeds and words simply don’t match up. “Two faced” or “duplicitous” are among the nicer terms used to describe folks who seem to have fallen short. And yet the evidence is all around us that our ability to function in various communities requires adaptations that turn us into distinct if not wholly different persons. As exhibit “A” consider George Orwell’s well-known description of a restaurant manager in his book, Down and Out in Paris and London:

I remember our assistant maitre´ d´ hotel, a fiery Italian, pausing at the dining-room door to address his apprentice who had broken a bottle of wine. Shaking his fist above his head he yelled (luckily the door was more or less soundproof) “Tu me fats—Do you call yourself a waiter, you young bastard? You a waiter!  You’re not fit to scrub floors in the brothel your mother came from. . . Then he entered the dining-room and sailed across it dish in hand, graceful as a swan. Ten seconds later he was bowing reverently to a customer.   

This is a man who is simply doing his job.  A maître’d’s success requires a minimum of two selves, and probably many more. And he is not alone. His situation has its counterparts in ordinary lives that barrel through full schedules that require constant adjustments to the persona we offer to others. Indeed, a video crew following us around for a few days would probably record that most of us are virtual repertory companies of one, adjusting, enhancing or concealing aspects of our elastic and complex temperaments. We know the value of making the necessary adjustments. At a party, for example, its a good bet that vegetarians will not try the meatballs. But most will still fulfill the role of the compliant guest, perhaps not even mentioning their dietary preferences.

Our expanding repertory requires the mastery of a range of suitable scripts.  What can you say at a funeral? On a first date? At a job interview? As a group leader?  We listen and learn, using an increasingly familiar script to match the role, all the while growing comfortable in the part.

It’s not only our nature to be role-players, our mental health may depend on it. Adaptability is a cherished social skill. We are graded on it in primary school, especially in the United States.  There are countless sets of job reviews, psychological tests and ad-hoc measures of personal maturity that explicitly stigmatize inflexibility. In organizational life as in relationships it’s frequently  a person’s behavioral and rhetorical rigidity that gets them in trouble.  “Pathological” has become a near-synonym for the rigid thinker and obsessive behavior.

True, the single hold-out can be both the hero of a story or its villain.  For heroes  think of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men (1957) or Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take it With You (1938). But in the organizational world we often decry leaders who can’t adapt to the times, or the under-appreciated talents of their subordinates.

To be sure, there are always the inflexible who try to make a career out of an ostensibly consistent and single identity. But frequently making an issue of violated boundaries begins to look like selfish prevarication. That’s what third acts are literally about.  Watching a film or play, we wait for the likely third act transformation of a character in trouble. Change is in the wind. Can they manage it? We want them to find the resources to become who they must.

Comments:  Woodward@tcnj.edu