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Personas

March 21, 2011

I’ve quoted the quote before, but since I know how forgetful you can be, O Imaginary Reader, here it is again:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Oscar Wilde of course.

A popular advice to throw around is that you should “be yourself”. This has always seemed so redundant to me. I mean, of course I am myself; who else would I be? If I were someone else, I wouldn’t have to even worry about it, because I would worry about that self instead.

The hidden meaning of the cliché is that people are being dishonest with either people around them or themselves, in both cases to avoid shame or ridicule. But to me the whole thing is moot. If I am being dishonest about my true feelings and intentions, then how does that make me less me than my being honest would? It just means that my self is a liar.

But no. It’s always assumed that people should be happy and free and open and all that jazz and if they aren’t, then they’re not being themselves. It’s the same thing as how optimists seem completely unable to grasp that others aren’t. Being a pessimist, I often hear that “cheer up” quip that people obviously think is some sort of catch-all solution.

It also shows a great deal of thoughtlessness on their behalf. I mean, if I could just wish myself upbeat and optimistic, I would have already. But it’s implicitly understood that happiness and optimism are somehow the ground state of being and that deviation is a defect.

Rant aside, is it possible to ever be oneself? By that I mean if it’s possible to fully be that inner core so many of us seem to believe to exist.

Sometimes is mentioned that we adopt certain roles or masks in different situations. A teenager for example might talk and behave differently with their friends than when talking to a grandparent. Conversation with co-workers is different from conversation with family or friends. And so on.

So we adopt different personas in different situations. But for these different personas to emerge, we have to interact with other people. This perhaps is the difference between our inner core and our personas; even if all alone in the world, we would have quirks and dislikes and behaviours fairly original to us. So we don’t stop having an identity just because no one is watching. Or possibly because we ourselves are watching us.

I’ve sometimes wondered if gravity would exist if there were just one particle in the universe (gravity being a property of matter) or if another particle is required (gravity only exists because of particles interacting). Perhaps the same thing can be said about identities/personas. We need other people to adopt the personas.

Or do we? Let’s go back to the thought experiment where you are alone in the world. You would still be able to adopt a persona if you so desired. You could amass any number of quirks and habits. In fact you probably would without anyone around to rein you in.

So personas can be employed without interaction. Now the question becomes: can we avoid adopting a persona when interacting with someone else? We might be able to but it’s hard. This is why we tend to fall into old ways of speaking and acting when seeing friends we haven’t spoken to in a long time. The persona lies dormant until a certain condition activates it.

Is it because we meet that person or is it because we have invested in that relationship so that deviating from the persona might rock the boat?

At long last I return to the masks of the quote. Do we act differently if we are anonymous? The answer is an obvious yes; if people acted the way they acted on the internet in real life, they would be shunned and possibly beaten.

I myself have adopted not one but several online personas. They just happened. Long ago, I had my dreamer/emo poet persona, now I have a troll persona, a blog persona, a Facebook persona… I don’t even know which are separate and which are overlapping or facets of a whole or whatever. And I’m not sure how many there are.

What I do know is that it’s hard to break out of the personas once they’re established. Even if I keep myself fairly anonymous online (internet detectives would not be severely hindered though) it seems that the more time I’ve invested in a given persona, the more rigid it becomes.

It’s just logical that if a persona has persisted for a long time, then it must have been fairly fitting as an interface in that particular social setting, and thus we feel reluctant to throw it away or even changing it. The investment has been large, so the cost would also be large.

So it’s fear that keeps us from “being ourselves”? Somehow it doesn’t feel like an earth-shattering revelation. And I’m still not convinced that adopting “false” personas is somehow not being yourself. Some self must be doing the persona-switching, non? Being oneself might mean being dishonest and employing a rich gallery of personas.

But personas are hindering. It’s probably the reason why I’m so suspicious of Facebook and the like where you use your real name. Perhaps it’s just being set in old ways from my starting to use the internet in the late ’90s, where hardly anyone used their real names. It was all nicks.

Internet seemed like such a great leveller when it came. No one had to be who they were in real life anymore. They could cast off the shackles of the past and reinvent themselves in the easiest way imaginable: the digital. And now the pendulum has swung to our being expected to bare all, to be our unaugmented selves.

But with this comes never being able to start over. Past sins and shames are forever out there, can never be taken back.

Perhaps one should look at this optimistically. Perhaps the social codes change along with this fad for full disclosure. Because when everyone has an embarrassing record, no one really does. Maybe privacy was something transitory, born from modern society’s high standards of living. Being in a group has gone from being a necessity to being a choice.

But I still feel that people are throwing away their masks all too willingly.

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  1. Look ma, I’m being smart ‘n shit « lackofwit

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