People are social chameleons. We respond to people and follow suit; we tone down this and crank up that, depending. And this social camouflage is a specialty of Stanford students in particular. Most of us step through numerous worlds of responsibility — discussion section, community service, political campaign, startup entrepreneurship, sib stuff, club sports, roommate, best friend, party girl — and our presented identities flow between them like water. We can handle the pre-professional mixer after discussion section and the frat party after that. We can lead hours-long sections on sustainability and walk out of class whispering gossip to our girlfriends. We don’t simply wear multiple hats, oh no — we have wardrobes to match. Naturally, after years of role-playing, we know who to be, and when.
But it’s not always intentional. There are times when our social adaptation skills kick in without our full consent. You must have noticed how effortlessly “I hate” fosters “me TOO” or how complaints are like quick-bread for bonding here among us confident, privileged young university people. We hear dialogue cues and instinctively match them, even if we don’t always agree. It’s essentially the very useful skill of social accommodation. The only problem is that I hate always saying what I hate, and I’m bothered by constant complaints. I refuse to believe that’s my natural state of conversation. Yet I’ve recently found myself falling into these exact traps with certain repeat offenders I know, people who seem to somehow operate on toxic thinking. As I found myself cooperating with my peers’ constant negativity (then trying desperately to counter it), I started asking myself: how much does social geography dictate our personality?
The situation we’re all familiar with is the roommate one. With roommates, we’re not just living with a different neatness type or sleeping schedule, we’re living with an entirely new set of assumptions about life and everyday living. It’s like going into someone else’s kitchen and trying to cook with them: they could be using utensils you never knew existed and cutting their onions in a revolutionary way, and it’s basically like dancing with a new partner. In the intimate setting of a single room, even the least bit of adjustment is necessary. With all of our individual quirks, some have to give way to others or find a new groove to fit into. In other words, we adopt the other’s quirks out of fondness, meet them halfway, or react with confrontation (or, most unfortunately, passive aggressiveness). In the space of two people, there’s actually not that much space. Influence happens. We’ve all heard the horror stories. (Which means some of us have been the horror stories.)
Obviously, it’s not all horror. When we spend a lot of time with someone we admire, we also absorb their habits, attitudes and catchphrases, but unhesitatingly. We naturally emulate those we are attracted to, and it’s okay because we like them. I remember noticing this for the first time in fifth grade: I discovered that my math teacher had a wife, who looked so similar to him! And most accustomed couples do the same — they begin recreating each other’s facial expressions, the way best friends start talking like each other. (I wish I could connect this to how dog owners almost always look like their canines, right?! But maybe I’m stretching it.)
As a result, people are sometimes walking scrapbooks of people they’ve met — a collection of souvenirs taken from admired personalities. I can source many of my own quotidian characteristics to people I’ve gravitated to over the past 21 years. Random ones include making friendship bracelets (I know, quaint), little hellos on Post-it notes, wearing socks or slippers at home, urges to drink espresso at breakfast (life in Florence)… People who were and are closest to me have highlighted colors in my character and maybe dulled others.
Remember Darwin’s finches? (It’s okay — I just Wiki-ed them, too.) They diverged into different species after centuries of settling on distinct islands. We’re the finches, society-style. The world says, “Pick your friends wisely,” but it’s easy to tut-tut; it’s easy to imagine that we have full control over how we act and react to people. But I believe that we enter the world with genes, which give us oodles of unique possibilities, and then we enter various societies, which exaggerate and value parts of us differently. And, generally, I believe we’re completely unaware while it’s happening. Where does our decision-making lie, then? It lies in who we decide to surround ourselves with, maintain relationships with, choose to withdraw from, cut off. Other people may not dictate our personality — that’s all on us — but if they can spike it, why not choose sweet over sour?
Have something to say, but don’t want to get too close? How perfect! Nina’s got email too! Try ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.