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.
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?