Tag Archives: role theory

The Myth of Personal Authenticity

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

Doing What Comes Unnaturally

Source: Wikipedia.org

The experience of facing a discrepant and uncomfortable new role is universal.  Everyone knows the feeling.  We identify with the person who makes the effort to pull it off. 

Assessing someone’s comfort as a communicator usually involves comparing their perfected repertoire of roles against new roles thrust on them.  Over a lifetime we acquire all sorts of comfortable responses to settings and situations we have learned to master.  In the language of the theater, we know the scripts and we can easily pull of the requirements they place on us.

Functioning as an effective spouse, lover, best friend, reliable employee, dutiful parent, devoted son or daughter–even a competent chairperson of this or that committee–is not always easy.  Even when we think we’ve become more or less a one-person repertory company ready for prime time, life has a way of placing us in situations we did not seek. Maybe a person is absolutely uncomfortable speaking in public, finding the right words to say at a funeral, or facing the daunting task of dismissing an employee who has not worked out. We all know the feeling of being pushed into what academics would call a “discrepant role.”

Think of Cameron Diaz as “Kimberly” in My Best Friend’s Wedding. She is mercilessly set up by Julia Robert’s character to be humiliated at a karaoke bar. Kimberly couldn’t carry a tune even if she was given a waterproof bag.  Even so, her good-natured self easily triumphs over some truly awful warbling.

People who handle discrepant roles unusually well are usually called actors.  We marvel at how they can inhabit another character so different than who they are.  Theater is also a model in another sense.  Within the literature of drama the inability to successfully pull of the requirements of a setting is actually a major premise of comedy. We love to see characters having little success coping with unfamiliar social situations. Film and television stars ranging from Lucille Ball and Cary Grant to Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler have all sold plenty of tickets on the premise that a botched effort to pass off a different self can be hilarious. For the rest of us, a potential loss of “face” weighs as a good reason to recoil from what can look like a disaster in the making. And yet the existence of the familiar comedy trope of a fish out of water ought to give us some comfort. To be sure, we don’t want to be the source of someone else’s entertainment.  But the experience of facing and conquering what is for us a situational stretch is universal.  Everyone knows the feeling.  We identify with persons challenged by the new circumstance.  And we know that grace in handling the pressure counts for a lot.

For Americans public speaking is the most dreaded discrepant role. Many of us—actually about 30 percent—are terrified by the prospect. It ranks with snake-handling as a cause of fear.  And yet most of us do pretty well overcoming these doubts and finding that it is a challenge we can conquer.

There is no trick to overcoming this natural apprehension, but there is a useful method working past it.  Focus on what you have to say.  Think of a presentation as simply a heightened form of conversation about something you regard as important.  Don’t apologize for being nervous.  Use notes, but don’t memorize or simply read them.  Prepare an outline as an aid in delivering your ideas in your own words. This is called extemporaneous speaking.  You’ve prepared.  But you’ve also left yourself the advantage of delivering your ideas in your authentic personal style.  If a speech includes data like the line, “Because of epidemic in childhood obesity, many children are predicted to have shortened lives than their parents,” say it with the urgency and shock it deserves. Good remarks are simply an amplified and slightly more organized version of your conversational self.

Remember that audiences expect you to be you.  Even a discrepant role never really changes that.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu