I think we have all experienced a change of personality depending on where we are and who we are with. I’m not the same potty-mouthed moron in front of my kids as I might be with friends after we’ve had a few.
But are all these situational personalities me? Is there just one that’s “real?” Are the rest me being a poser of sorts?
I remember feeling uncomfortable when someone I knew would come into the restaurant where I was waitressing because I had developed an almost airhead personality (Hey, I’m from California, it just comes natural…) It was a way to tap into a part of myself that had boundless energy to play along with people’s demanding idiocy.
There were times it came in downright handy: once, I had a guy ordering a drink from me who I could tell had already had too much before he even got to our establishment. Since I was too much of a wuss to refuse his drink order outright, I was able to avoid serving his drunk ass by responding to his repeated angry gestures with a spacy twitter that went something like, “Tee hee! Oh yeah, I forgot!” And then I flounced off again, avoiding his table as long as possible.
I didn’t want any real people to see me being such a bubblehead. And I sure didn’t want to have to be my usual thoughtful self, because I would have taken a look around me at what I had to deal with and run screaming.
When I was an college instructor I went for more of a guilt-tripping mother role. I would assign the class to pair up and discuss what they did last weekend to practice their French, but inevitably, words in English would glide through the air and I would have to confront the Anglocentric offenders. I’d stare them down and say, “En français, s’il vous plaît!” in the same tone of voice I use on my son when he leaves a dirty heap of clothes in the middle of the floor. When the student looked down sheepishly and began emitting guttural syllables that vaguely resembled the vocabulary we had learned that week, I knew I’d been effective.
My other dominant personality in the classroom is the comedian. This has to be my favorite persona. It is similar to the airhead in that one must surrender all dignity to the almighty inspiration of goofiness. The difference is, as a comedian you can retain a good measure of intelligence. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would grab onto a mistake I’d made (NEVER one of the student’s mistakes!) or some lame part in the textbook (of which there was a veritable gold mine) and I would ham it up for all it was worth. If I could even get a couple of chuckles it would make my whole day.
But which is the real me? The snuggly mama? The amorous wife? The polite granddaughter? The fearful doubter that turns some worry over and over in my head, destroying all hope of sleep?
They could all be me, but there is such a wide variation that it almost makes the whole idea of “me” become phony. A person is “supposed” to be able to be described by a few well-chosen adjectives, but you would get a different response depending on who you asked.
Perhaps the core of our authentic selves is adaptability. Maybe we are diamonds who hold in each facet a reflection of the truth we see outside of us in that moment. Perhaps the “real” me only exists as I interact with the present situation, and in the hermetic vaccuum of space, it doesn’t matter who I’d be anyway.
With this line of reasoning, the boundary between Self and Other becomes palpably porous. The “real” me couldn’t possibly stand up without bringing along, through a chain of causality, the rest of the world.
As John Muir said, “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
(But if you still insist on finding adjectives to describe me, definitely ask my Grandma…)