Monday, October 24, 2011

Nobody wants to know

Remember the good old days when it was a parents’ job to keep their emotions to themselves?

Today things have supposedly changed - it’s all about “being real.” But even with all of that, being too honest can puncture a kids’ sense of security and stability.

Though we may seem taller and grayer, adults are basically kids inside. And when we are confronted with the vulnerability of someone we count on to be stable, it scares us and we don’t want to know. Remember that episode, on “Sex and the City,” when Carrie’s beloved mentor at Vogue confronted her with his penchant for cross-dressing?

I was thinking about this while reading an online discussion about one vs. multiple identities: Is it our choice to be different people on different social networks? Or would we prefer to be known as an integrated, multifaceted person by all the people we deal with?

In the discussion it was fairly clear, as I also heard in a real-life forum, that most people want to preserve their distinct identities. They want to be one person at work, another with the family, maybe a third with the college buddies, etc. There are boundaries.

The sociologist who kicked off the discussion with her blog argued that we are always multiple selves and that drawing clear lines between one and the other is healthy.

But I was not so sure. While it is true that we play different roles in different settings, it is also true that living too “divided” a life can lead to not only role conflict but psychological distress.

Indeed, social media has made the “problem” of multiple selves more immediate. Rather than talking in a distinct way to different audiences, frequently we tend to record our utterances electronically as we “perform” in different settings.

So an executive writes a formal email, and then turns around and sends a casual Facebook message or a Tweet. All of this is fine until the outside world is confronted by very disparate communications coming from the same person. It becomes easy, then, to judge them; to conclude that they are a hypocrite.

Thus the Mark Zuckerberg credo that we are always, only, one person.

On the surface, in a social media world, it may seem like our audiences want us to tear down those walls. But in reality, I think, they really don’t want to see all that much. Maybe once in a while, a glimpse. Maybe they want the essential values, the basic voice, to be consistent. But after that, I think, too much information all at once is disconcerting, upsetting, annoying, and even boring – TMI.

Perhaps the issue has to do not with how you portray yourself but with how you think of yourself internally. The more integrated you are – the more you have embraced the various aspects of your identity – the more comfortable you are exercising control over your “portrayal” based on the unique situations you find yourself in.

The way I see it, every actor plays different roles during their careers. Life in social media times is no different. It’s OK to personalize your behavior depending on the forum. You wouldn’t wear flip-flops to a formal dinner, and you wouldn’t wear a suit to McDonald’s. But wherever you go, if you’re out in public, just remember there’s always someone to take a photo for Facebook.