Sharing news and commentary about education, careers, investing, and life.

Sharing news and commentary about education, careers, investing, and life.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Our different masks (or hats)

Have you ever thought about how you present yourself? The likely answer is yes. But have you ever thought about you consciously and subconsciously present yourself according to the specific person or situation you're dealing with? This is something I've been wrestling with and decided I could turn into a full fledged post.

I started by looking up books on human behavior. I am amazed there are so many but one that stuck out as a "classic" that is still relevant is titled "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life". Then a related search showed up with an excerpt from Ben Casnocha's new book "My Startup Life" and a reference to the same book! Anyways, I think this passage from Ben's book it's quite telling and raises some provocative points:

Throughout my sophomore year I experimented with different masks. In business with adults, the appropriate mask seemed close to my instinctual self. I would layer my vocabulary and appearance with professionalism, politeness, and intensity. In school with teenagers, the appropriate mask—if I wanted to be engaged, friendly, social—was different. Not professionalism, slickness. Not "I look forward to picking you up tomorrow morning," but "I'll swoop you tomorrow A.M." Being "chill" trumped all. The prop change wasn't a simple swap. The teen setting required the same category of skills, only of different gradations. Pick the wrong shade and your voice cracked. You're supposed to be polite to teachers and peers, yet too polite and you're side-brushed as a suck-up, a pushover, a brown-noser. You're supposed to be funny, except when you become too obnoxious. You're supposed to be academic and get straight A's but also be “ghetto” and loose. You're supposed to treat girls as equals and not objectify them as sex objects, but also confirm your own heterosexuality through silent catcalls at someone who just walked by. There's even another teen mask for those weekend drinking parties, where you're supposed to morph into a wild-and-crazy drunk dude after just a few sips.

Every high schooler wades through these unforgiving waters, kicking fervently to find a balance among all this sociological nuance. But most high schoolers are also placed in the right sea at the outset; they just need to figure out how to swim north. For me, though, it took effort to even find the sea. How do I reimmerse myself in the highly self-conscious environment of a high school cafeteria after finishing a conference call with a client on the cell phone outside? On the conference call, or in any business meeting, professional and personal aren't mixed. It's a one-dimensional interaction predicated first and foremost on the exchange of ideas rather than personal appearance, social plans, or dating history.

Interesting, huh? What got me thinking was how we control our behavior from situation to situation, in many cases in an unnatural manner. In the above example, Ben tries to act like the typical high schooler to fit in. In my life, I find myself in a "caught in between" situation - sometimes I act way too old and serious when I'm around people my age, but then other times I act too young and "chill" around people much older.

Do you find yourself wearing different masks, hats, or whatever you want to call it? And if you do, do you sometimes have trouble switching from one to the other? And do you ever wish you could just wear one hat or is it better that we constantly adjust around different people and situations?

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