Proust provides much food for thought; twenty pages of Proust provides more discussion fodder than two hundred pages of most books.

Here’s a passage that I believe could inspire an entire evening’s discussion:

Even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognize and to which we listen.

How true.

It is both a great and terrible thing that the ideas we form of others — especially those first impressions which are constructed after mere moments of acquaintance — continue to dominate our relationships with them in the face of conflicting evidence. It’s a natural coping mechanism akin to the process of stereotyping, but applied to a single individual, and the real sin occurs when our formed image of a person is unyielding, stands fixed in the face of conflicting evidence.

I am as guilty of this as any other person. Poor Jeremy Gingerich long was the victim of my notion of his nature, and it was only when I allowed myself to really perceive him, to view him in diverse surroundings and situations, without filtering his behavior through a filter of my own prejudice (based primarily on antiquated notions and opinions of Jeremy), that I was able to alter my opinion of him. It works in the opposite direction, too, of course; we place some people on pedestals, even in the first few moments of a friendship, and in them we seem unable to note even the grossest flaw. The ugliest, most vile person in the world might seem beautiful and good if our minds have been swayed to that opinion and we are unwilling to relinquish it.

Are we what others perceive us to be? Does our social personality exist outside our interpersonal interactions? I suppose, by definition, it cannot. Is our social personality fixed, or is it malleable? Does it change from one social environment to another? For myself, I believe that some people’s perception of J.D. more closely matches my own than other people’s perceptions. Some view me in a negative light, and are not swayed by evidence that might assuage this disdain. Others like and respect me despite my foul actions and ill humor. But who sees me most truly? Is there a group that has a more accurate image of who I am?

Paul Carlile and I have discussed, at length, another aspect of social personality: the masques we wear from group-to-group. Paul makes no secret that he alters his masque to the social environment in which he finds himself. With me, alone, he is thoughtful and reserved. In a small group of close friends, he is mischievous, challenging, looking to goad staid thought toward something new, always “stirring the pot”. When he’s in a new social environment, mixing primarily with strangers, Paul plays the clown, the buffoon, going for cheap laughs, disarming those around him so that he can better gauge their personalities while delaying their view of his own. Each of these masques is a part of Paul, and he’s fully cognizant of the roles he is playing.

I prefer to maintain, essentially, the same persona in nearly every social situation. I am not socially facile, cannot cope with juggling multiple masques. Sure, my behavior alters slightly from one social context to another, but only slightly (on a conscious level). Still, each person’s perception of who I am is different, based on the social climate in which they know me. My soccer teammates have seen one facet of me, my family has seen another, and my geek pals have seen yet another.

In order to have a full grasp of another person’s nature, one must have known him for an extended period of time, have observed him in a variety of situations, have viewed every facet of his personality. How many people, then, can we claim to know fully?

How well do you know me? How well do I know you?

See how it goes?

Proust inspires self-reflection, close meditation.


What do you think about social personality and self-perception?


On 24 April 2003 (09:17 AM),
Tammy said:

Ok I’ll try this one. Actually, I had thought about this when we all did that quiz thing you had on strength, intelligence. charisma, etc. Those scores were based on individual perceptions; how much charisma and intelligence we “thought’ we had.

I know that I put on different masks for different groups of people. Most definitely! I think my husband is the only one that truly knows me.(Even then sometimes I wonder!lOl)

I see myself as haveing a lot of charisma. I see myself as a very blunt ,outspoken person, yet not rude. I think my friends see me as rude sometimes.

I can be very loud and annoying, or very quiet and reflective. Unfortunately the quiet side is usually only seen at home.

Above all things, I hate it when people think I am a certain way and won’t let me be anything else. Two weeks ago I attended a Ladies Seminar and we all stayed at a motel overnight. A bunch of us met in the speakers room to gab into the night. Well our pastors wife spent most of the night regaling us with tales of missionaries she had entertained in her home.

I was feeling particularly tired that night and a little worried about my kids at home so I wasn’t the life of the party like I usually am. When we got back to the conference the following mornign, one lady said, ” Oh Tammy, I so wish I could have gone to the motel. I bet you just kept every one in stitches all night!” I looked at her and informed that I was really tired and hadn’t participated much.

Now heres what just burns me up!!!! Another lady was standing there and she starts shaking her head like I wasn’t being truthful. (she had been to the motel) Lady no.1 says, “Oh so I am right! I bet you didn’t shut your mouth all night!” Lady no.2 says through clenched teeth while rolling her eyes,”Uh huh!”

Well I had HAD IT! I said, “Linda, how can you say that! Vicki talked all night telling missionary stories! I want you to know I scarecly said a word!” Linda just shrugged and walked away.

Now there, JD, is a true case of someone having a preconcieved notion of ones social personality. And what irks me is that once people have formed an opionion of you it doesn’t seem to matter what you do after that . You just can’t change it!

I think I know what my social personality is. It’s funny,witty, charismatic, and intelligent. Sometimes a little too loud perhaps. I also know that everyone percieves me as a gossip, which I am not! Gossiping, in my book, is purposely setting out to destroy someones good name. I don’t do that!

To wind up this long narrative I must say that my social personality and my self perception are not the same!

PS. I may have revealed more about myself in the above writing but I must always remember my mother is reading this!lol (Altho I do say that seriously too!)

On 24 April 2003 (09:45 AM),
Jeremy said:

I deserve to be judged for my unwillingness to fit in with “acceptable” social behaviors. This is a weakness of mine – most of the time I just don’t care what others think. I learned early on that trying to fit in, or trying to MAKE others like me as a way of feeling better about myself, left me exhausted, both emotionally and physically. This is often a point of great distress for my wife – she is the polar opposite on this subject.

Ultimately, my point is this. I like you JD. I like almost everyone I know. The people I like least are those who can never just be themselves – who always need some kind of a front. But there is no need for a statement like “poor Jeremy Gingerich.” I’m ok with you not liking me – or liking me. Although as I enjoy your company I prefer the latter.

It sounds as if I am a great deal like Tammy. I have been in many situations similar to the one desscribed as above (if you don’t believe me 🙂 just see JD’s entry from April 22, 2002. I read this two days ago and found it funny. My wife would cringe as she read it and remember and be extremely upset with herself for marrying such a social idiot.

At any rate – don’t feel sorry for poor Jeremy Gingerich.


On 24 April 2003 (10:34 AM),
Dana said:

Well, you’d better believe that I have an opinion on this 🙂

Nobody exists in a vacuum. Even those people who purposely go out of their way to wall themselves off from other people still have relationships with others — it’s just that those relationships are stilted and superficial, at least on the concious level. You can still read things about people around you, even without any councious interaction.

The thing about knowing someone else is that each interpersonal relationship is different. If both Able and Baker know Charlene, they know different Charlenes, because Able and Baker are themselves not the same person. Who they are colors their relationships with who Charlene is.

I think the most important parts of knowing another person are time and variety. Seeing them in many situations, over a long period of time.

Under those circumstances, you get to observe that person’s many masks, and how and when they employ them. You get the opportunity to learn what doesn’t change, despite the concious efforts of the person to adapt to his or her surroundings.

You also learn to read the person. You can tell their emotional state more readily, which allows you to pick up more subtle signals of how they are feeling and what they think about other people or situations.

I think others get to know us in spite of ourselves, not because of what we do. Because having someone else know you makes you vulnerable, and we are all careful to try and protect ourselves. And what is always amazing is when someone does get to know you, and sees through all those layers you put between yourself and the real world, and yet they still like and enjoy being around you.

That’s the basis for true friendship, and true love. At least, in my opinion. For most of us, it’s only our family that has the opportunity to get to know us this well. Our family, and our spouses.

If we’re lucky, we have a few friends who get there, too.

I think I know you pretty well, JD. I’ve known you for over a decade, and getting to know you in the Dorms at college gave me the opportunity to see you in lots of different contexts. Up until you started this blog, I think I’d probably read as much or more of your writing as anybody (because of our e-mail correspondences), and that reading has probably given me more insight into who (I think) you are than anything. You still surprise me, though, like with the kids at Clara’s BBQ. And I know that there are sides to you that I probably will never see.

Anyway, I do this sort of introspection all the time. I don’t need no stinkin’ Proust to trigger it — Heck, I go out of my way to pay people to listen to me do it 🙂

On 24 April 2003 (12:06 PM),
Joelah said:

So if these first impressions are so powerful and lingering, why do we make them? I’d argue that they do serve a purpose in our complicated social classfication system. They allow us to react and communicate more efficiently than we otherwise would. Imagine if everytime you encountered an acquaintance you had to sort of circle each other warily, testing out the roles you’d play socially. Each person would be reserved, reluctant to communicate, afraid of revealing too much. Because, after all, you never really know what someone else will do or say. You can get to know someone well enough to make very educated guesses, but there will always be uncertainty. I think our tendency to make and stick with first impressions allows us to overcome this first level of social inhibition.

On 24 April 2003 (12:13 PM),
J.D. said:

Ah, yes, I do agree that first-impressions, like stereotypes, serve a valuable psychological function in our ability to engage in social interaction.

The problem, comes, I believe, when one is unwilling to change a first impression or alter an existing stereotype based on evidence that contradicts the existing template. Often times we steadfastly refuse to change our perception of somebody (or some group) despite blatantly contradictory behavior. This phenomenon is more interesting to me.

Stereotypes and first-impressions aid in social interaction, but they should not be so rigid that we are unwilling to alter them in the face of new information.

On 24 April 2003 (12:57 PM),
Dana said:

If you buy my argument about time and variety, what you are describing is basically having the opportunity to get to know someone (ie, the opportunity to “circle each other warily, testing out the roles you’d play socially”), and yet not doing it for whatever reason.

Instead, you stick with a superficial impression of the person, and don’t take the effort to put the time and experiences you do have in common to learn more about that other person. You allow (either from laziness or, more likely, from indifference) the relationship to remain, at least from your point of view, superficial.

This isn’t necessarily bad. Lots of activities do not require deep interpersonal relationships (ie, playing Starcraft, soccer, or the like) and if you only did them with Close Personal Friends who know all about your Inner Soul, well, then you’d have pretty small teams and/or not get to participate in some enjoyable activities very often.

On the other hand, if you undertake one of these activities with a small group of people for, oh, 15 or 20 years and yet your relationship with them remains on a more superficial plane, well, I guess I’d wonder why. What else is going on? Why are you chosing to exclude those people, whom you’ve had ample opportunity to get to know well, from other areas of your life? There may be a good answer for it, but I would certainly wonder what that answer was.

(Note that this is all hypothetical rambling that I’m throwing out while I’m otherwise occupied at work. There Is No Subtext!)

On 24 April 2003 (08:00 PM),
Virginia said:

humm, this almost renders me speechless, however I do have a comment. When we moved to Idaho we met a family who viewed us from a distance (I know we look strange J.D. but they did too :o)
Anyhow we tried to be friendly and they were polite. This continued about 6 months. Then for some unknown reason we became their (They became our) best friends. They have confided in us, Taken us out for steak dinners (and paid the bill). Brought roses and pizza when we were sick, sent cards and the like.
Are first impressions always right? I don’t think so. Had you ask me about them a year ago I would have said they were nice, respectable people. Today I would say they are outgoing, friendly, and wonderful people.
About myself I would say I am mostly one to observe and watch other people. My voice is not often heard above the rest, (maybe because I married into a noisy family) However (if Tammy’s not around) and I am comfortable in the group I am in, I can be the life of the party. Like how do you be the life of the party when Tammy is there and tells an old school friend in the group, who is at least 4 years older than I am , “You look a lot younger than mom”… enough said.
About you J.D. Steve was his own person, You are your own person. I like that kind of person.
Different but likeable. You don’t seem to be afraid to do what you like and want to do. Also polite and respectable. And very interesting to talk to.
I have a feeling I’d better quit. I’m sure Tammy is checking my spelling and english and I don;t get a very good grade when she does.

On 24 April 2003 (10:15 PM),
Tammy said:

My mother strongly contends that the Roths are a quiet, intelligent bunch of people who would never think of being noisy and outspoken like the Swartendrubers.(her husbands side of the family)

Well she may be right. But once again that may just be a first impression. After all, according to all that has been written, only those who actually live with the Roths will ever really know! (spooky) And….. I have lived with a Roth!

Yet I will never tell!

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