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Why I never call you

On social expectations, role-playing, and the sense of self

A.: You missed yesterday’s party…

B.: Yeah, it happens.

A.: I tried to contact you yesterday and this morning, but you never replied. It has been a long time since you last joined us.

B.: I didn’t want to be there and didn’t feel like I had to explain myself.

A.: You don’t like our company or parties in general? I mean… You are here.

B.: We need to define who “our” company is. Is that you or a random collection of strangers? As for parties, they typically consist of people with little to no connection to each other. I never got anything out of them.

A.: You don’t like strangers then? To me this is the best thing about parties, especially in this cosmopolitan city. You get to meet new people from diverse backgrounds. All these cultures coexisting peacefully. It is a treasure!

B.: I guess this is where my problem starts: parties do not allow you to actually get to know someone. You grab a drink and chat with the person next to you about whatever superficial topic comes up. After the Nth time of being asked about the latest events on some TV show that I have never watched or ever showed interest in, I feel those conversations are a complete waste of my time. I don’t even have a TV, but the random fellow nearby does not know that as they do not know me. They just assume things, putting me in a defensive position where I need to explain every little deviation from their preconceived notions.

A.: Maybe you just expect immediate results. It does not work that way. Sure, you have no interest in chit-chat though that is nothing more than an introduction. Once you break the ice, things start flowing naturally and you get to know the other person and have a good time.

B.: It could be that, though I tried multiple times to get past the awkward phase. I would listen to what they have to say, ask them some question based on what I learnt from them and gradually work my way towards something closer to my interests or at least something that could be generalised to find applications beyond the specifics of the topic under consideration. You know me: I am very patient and an active listener.

A.: That could be the issue right there: people may think you are almost interrogating them. They are not used to someone actually listening to what they say. Most of the times they just talk past each other, as if they are not collocated, bouncing words off of some imaginary barrier between them. They stand next to each other, but they are not together.

B.: And this is why I feel I am being put in a defensive position. This is who I am, yet that type of person does not conform with others’ expectations. I need to explain to them that I am listening carefully to what they have to say and am contributing to the discussion with relevant questions.

A.: You need to learn how to switch topics. Those probing questions stress them out in a subtle way: they are not prepared for them, they are not ready for that level of scrutiny.

B.: Switching topics has not worked for me. It simply rolls the problem over to the next theme.

A.: You cannot go in-depth again, right? Care to offer an example?

B.: It was at your birthday party: I don’t understand why you celebrate birthdays, but I digress. I had just walked indoors and was perusing the bar with the drinks. This girl came up to me while I was trying to grab a beer and asked me what the differences between the brands were. I explained that one is an ale, another is a lager, etc., and then went on to outline their main differences in taste and texture. Then she asked me what brought me to this place, to which I replied that I was your guest and we have been friends for years. So I asked back “what about you?”. She told me that she was a colleague of yours from the office. Then she tried to steer the discussion towards the kind of stuff I have grown to dislike, at which point I interrupted her saying bluntly that I find chit-chat boring, bordering on annoying, and if she was still curious to consider something else, something perhaps more interesting.

A.: Well, it seems to me you are good at this. You know how to listen and to talk, and you have knowledge of all those things which others might treat as useful trivia, at the very least. I can’t understand your problem then. You start off with some generic topic and then the discussion follows from there. Nice and simple. What about this story then? How did things go?

B.: I asked her instead to tell me about her background: what did she study, if anything, what were her interests related to that, and so on. She told me she had a degree in business administration but went on to pursue anthropological themes, doing work in different parts of the world.

A.: Oh, I know who that is!

B.: Of course you do. To the story: I don’t care about business but I am interested in anthropology, so I went on with that. At my request, she told me what she had learnt from those peoples and how “we” could help them out in this or that way. After she had described the situation, I invited her to put aside her enthusiasm of helping others and first try to figure out what she had learnt about herself and her own culture by being exposed to those peoples. She paused for what felt like a full minute, perplexed and bedazzled: it must have been an odd proposition. I did not take my eyes away and did not try to change topics: I was communicating my commitment to that statement. It seemed to trouble her though not in the sense of being disturbing but as the kind of question that had never occurred to her. I felt that she had never pondered that “we”—whoever that is—do not have all the answers and are not necessarily better than them, with all qualifiers of what “better” even means in such a case. I took it as an opportunity to nudge her to look inwardly and improve herself. I interrupted the pause with a remark: “how can you help a group of people you do not truly understand and, more importantly, how can you help someone—anyone!—when you are not sure who you are and whether you can even help yourself?”

A.: Oh my… What was her answer?

B.: She had no answer. Sipped some beer and checked whether I wanted to dance with her…

A.: So it worked! You did it, my friend!

B.: No, it didn’t because I was expecting an answer or at least another opportunity to further explore those concepts.

A.: You did not dance?

B.: No.

A.: Idiot! I swear, sometimes your behaviour baffles me even after all this time of being with you. It is preposterous. You passed on a perfect opportunity, you fool!

B.: This is where I am getting at. Dance is a form of expression, which I appreciate in its own right. Yet, in the context of a party it carries with it specific connotations. It has a certain function of socialisation beyond the aesthetics of the art itself. It is the same as with bending the knee to authority: if I do it here, it might cause laughter, but if I were to do it in front of royalty, it would express much more than the act itself, including recognition of the cobweb of institutions that grant royals their power. To my point though. What is the value of sociability if I cannot communicate? What is a connection without a link?

A.: But you can flirt and have a good time! There is a place for everything. Now we have the chance to hold a serious discussion. It is a nice evening, the sky is clear and we drink herbal tea. We never do any of that on Saturday nights. At parties we dance and just enjoy ourselves.

B.: You are hinting at social roles. The assumption is that we are all supposed to be the same in that regard. To act a certain way that conforms with the expectations that are fastened upon the concept of the event: “at parties we dance” is one way of formulating such a construct. There are those who express themselves in words, others with pictures, others still through their performance. And there are combinations and permutations between the extremes. You need to disaggregate people and treat each one of them on their own merits.

A.: Don’t you agree though that there is this notion of “the right place at the right time”? You cannot expect the same results between contexts that differ profoundly from one another.

B.: That is true. My point is that the context does not remake people: it changes the scope of the permissible, the desirable. It frames behavioural patterns. Think of it this way: you never see anyone walking up to a table and asking someone for a dance in this place at this time. It is inappropriate, unexpected, undesirable. That is what the context does. Put the same people in a different setting, say, a night club and the roles change.

A.: What is a person then? If we can only ever learn about someone and thus ourselves through actions and if all actions are bound by some structural, else extra-personal magnitudes, then the person is a function of the case’s constitution. How would we go about establishing an identity, a constant that transcends those ever evolving states of affairs?

B.: The self consists of two magnitudes: those that are mind-dependent and those which are mind-independent. Chrēmata and pragmata. The former are brought into being, or are assigned a defined purpose through rules or conventions, while the latter are facts. We can think that “on Saturday nights we dance”, just as we can agree to another stipulation: “we do not dance on Saturday nights”. This value is chrēmatic: it rests in usage. There is nothing inherent in Saturday nights that causes the need or the expectation of dancing. Whereas we cannot do that for the Sun. Not even if all humans agree to it, we cannot institute the Sun into its opposite. It is there regardless of our intentions and aspirations. It is unrefashionable. Couched in those terms, I would suggest that the person has an underlying nature, a pragma, that is like the Sun: it is a fact. We notice it with people’s physical characteristics, for example. One is tall, another has broad shoulders, a third has blue eyes, etc.. Why not extend that to people’s inner world? Each of us has their own character. Some are emotional, others are calculative, more still are people-oriented, while others enjoy solitude and quietude. Just as we cannot turn a tall fellow into a short one by means of institution, we cannot make an introvert fully gregarious and outgoing. And so on.

[ Read: Notes on Rules (2020-07-01) ]

A.: So institutions are kind of arbitrary while nature is the only truth?

B.: No, not necessarily. Everything we do is contingent on our nature. We can only realise what is within our potentiality. Institutions contribute to an emergent reality that is not to be found in each one of us individually. The dichotomy I introduced is meant as an analytical device when applied to the human condition, whose purpose is to educate us; to help us make sense of the case. In practice, we cannot separate layers of the human being, the culturally and socially constructed being, into physical and emergent: the pragmatic and chrēmatic are interconnected in a singular reality. To your point, institutions form part of a network of meanings. Their world is one of communication, in the sense that it is intersubjective and thus hinges on exchanges between people. Think of language, for instance. It is in our nature to produce sounds, use gestures, and make facial expressions with which to engage in a feedback loop of sharing and receiving ideas or expressing emotions. If someone you care about stares deeply into your eyes, pauses for a while and then says “I love you!” in a specific tone of voice and with a given set of non-verbal expressions, that carries a different colelction of significations than a computer reading out those exact words. The computer does not understand meaning because it does not feel anything in that combination of letters: it has no experience of what the resulting sounds refer to and it cannot discern emotion and intent. It is not the words that hold the meaning, but their communicative utility as understood by those involved. A hug can have the same meaning as that phrase. While another hug can be a mere formality, like a handshake with a coworker. Institutions are bundles of meaning. They operate just like that, only they target classes of people. Think, for instance, of a social norm of allowing the elderly to have priority in the waiting line at the grocery store. One may argue that this is arbitrary because society just wants to be polite, politically correct, or whatnot. Though we can still trace the underpinnings of the institution back to some underlying natural condition, as the norm implies that we recognise age-related physical differences and are willing to show compassion and mitigate inequalities that would otherwise arise, by introducing a positive element of discrimination: to slightly favour the elderly over the youth in an attempt to even out the differences between the two groups. So no, arbitrariness does not seem inherent to institutions.

[ Read: On the nature-convention divide (2020-08-10) ]

A.: Now take me back to the section in our discussion where we considered the sense of context when dealing with people. I claimed that there is a right place and a right time for certain patterns of behaviour and then simplified that with the expression “on Saturday nights we dance”. You then countered that such is a tacit attempt at homogenisation or, at least, that it does not account for innate differences between people. Fair enough! I get that. What I do not understand quite as well is the linkages you are trying to draw between context-dependent action and the account of the human condition and its intersubjectivity. Why is it so difficult to follow that girl to the dance floor? Did you not fancy her?

B.: Once you are at that point, it is not difficult at all. I could have. No objection there. And no, it is not a matter of fancy either. Though that story is nothing but a narrative I spun based on partial information in an attempt to frame my thesis and make it relatable. It is not about any given person. It may be a woman, a man, a Fata Morgana I experienced while staring at the horizon. Who knows? It may not even be rooted in a real story, yet it does not matter even if everything about it is true, down to the last detail which shall remain private anyway. You know me and can tell what is the case, but ignore that. What I am trying to flesh out is the phenomenon of temporary depersonification that stems from the expectations associated with the given context: the party, the drinks, the girl, the music, the invitation to the dance floor… They call for a given type of person and a specific modus operandi. Some may be like that independent of the context, others will have to fake it. They must act laboriously in accordance with the implicit rule book of the setting. And so B. must appear as non-B. for the purposes of fitting in. Why must that happen? Because failure to do so results in people thinking of you as a weirdo. Acting unlike oneself is a self-defence mechanism to fend off that kind of offensive.

A.: Doesn’t that mean you still care about what others think and are always in a process of acting? If you don’t care and wish to just be yourself, you do whatever you want and stop complaining about social expectations. No?

B.: Indeed, you do what you want, as in not walking to the dance floor to accompany the girl. But here is how pressure builds up: she will tell her friends of that event and they may conclude that B. is eccentric. Maybe they will hypothesise about B.’s sexual orientation or imagine some background story that caused that particular behaviour. Depending on how invested they are, they might seek to know more and paint a picture that fits their narrative. You can’t help that: it is normal for people to be curious about those kinds of things. So next time you meet her or her circle of acquaintances, you will sooner or later have to confront those assumptions. “Is she not your type?”, “Why were you sad that day?”, “If you need help, I am here for you!”, “I can arrange for her to come join us if you feel like it!”, and so on. You just want to mind your own business, but you can’t because of the mechanics of intersubjectivity. You did not invite any of that. You just wanted to do what made you comfortable at the moment. Even that simple act cannot prevent the depersonification I alluded to earlier, for B. has already become non-B. in the others’ impression of B. and B. is now called to apologise for being something other than what B. truly was when those events transpired.

A.: So you don’t call me when I invite you to a party because you want to avoid the consequences. I respect that. Just wanted to know. Though, as you said, you could just tag along as a means of self-defence and—who knows!—maybe you would forget that you had assumed a role and simply had a great time.

B.: It is not only the interpersonal effects, here understood as consequences. We must also consider the person itself and how this inevitable social pressure contributes to uneasiness. It will help explain the difficulty with acting, which is another way of admitting how tedious it is to always be on the defensive. Yes, you can suspend belief once or a few times, but doing it at all times in all cases distorts who you are. Now I am friendly with everyone, now I enjoy gossip, now I blithely accept your invitation to yet another party with a bunch of strangers, now I dance ever so cheerfully, now I show how I fancy this girl. Look at me! Just look, else you will miss the show I am putting up! All I am doing is layering one mask on top of another. Who am I? Who is this phantasmagorised self? Can I even remember how my face looks like after every look into the mirror reveals whatever mask is appropriate for that setting? Will I despair when I can no longer tell when I am role-playing? Might I feel stressed if I cannot determine whether I am wearing a mask or not, and whether that is the right one for the occasion?

[ Read: On role and actuality (2021-04-15) ]

A.: Too many rhetorical questions there. What are you trying to say?

B.: I suspect there is a mechanism, or concerted effort of multiple related mechanisms manifesting as a singular one, that keeps us tied to the underlying reality of our self. Think of it like a boat and an anchor. The boat can float in any given direction, but is ultimately pulled back to the anchor’s location. The self can be swayed by instituted realities up to a degree, though it can never become its non-self.

A.: What happens if you try to pull up the anchor?

B.: Say you can do that. Which direction should you then move towards? And once you get there, won’t you want to be anchored in that place? The gist is that wherever we find ourselves at any given point in our life, we are always framed, determined, or otherwise influenced by the pragmatic (mind-independent) aspect of our self, the environment notwithstanding. We speak of muscle memory and we know that the lungs cannot turn into a liver, the eye does not become an ear, and so on. Every single one of the subsystems that makes up the supersystem we discern as the human organism exhibits this commitment to identity, this insistence on self. Every fibre of our being works that way. So when you try to act unlike your self, you effectively do something akin to eating a food you are allergic to: your body reacts negatively. It harms you. Now I would posit that what we call the psyche is not a distinct quantity from the totality of the human supersystem, in the sense that it is not unaffected by the rest of the factors that are in an interplay with it. The negative reaction, in our case, can thus be experienced solely as an undesirable emotion, like anxiety, or a psychological condition such as depression. There will always be tension resulting in longer-term damage when you cannot recognise your actuality. Your being actively resists becoming something alien to it. That contradiction, that friction manifests as frustration, sadness, illness.

A.: Is there no way you can find a balance? What you describe here seems to me that it can only lead to isolation. You don’t join our parties, which I am fine with: I will continue to invite you to be sure that you do not think I forgot about you. You don’t hang out with colleagues after work, because you want to escape from that role as soon as possible… You are a recluse. Where do you get the chance to relax and be who you are?

B.: The more you think about it, the harder it gets. Every place comes with its own set of rules of conduct. Those may be tacit or tolerable, but they are there. Here I am myself, unencumbered by false wants and expectations.

A.: How do you know that you are not acting again?

B.: I am relaxed. There is no pressure, no sense of inner conflict. If I am still acting, which I probably do such as by observing basic manners, I am not being alienated from who I am. The act is harmless, the role carries no expectations that can force me to refashion myself. So it is the kind of rules that are linked to an operation of depersonification that I am concerned with.

A.: Your problem is with expectations and desires that demand a change from your side…

B.: Yes, it is the desire of the unattainable, the yearning of the unrealisable that forces you into submission. Not outright. It undoes you piecemeal. When you role-play you get into the mode of trying to pursue an end you ultimately do not want. You are essentially forced to do it contrary to your volition, only you rationalise it as your will. You have been trained to behave in such a manner in anticipation of some reward, such as getting the chance to be with that girl you only just met, or to generally enjoy a good reputation of sociability among your peers. You are essentially accumulating credit points that you exchange for the favourable opinions of others. Until you realise that this peculiar currency, just like money, fiat or otherwise, has no intrinsic value and is useless in and of itself, while the ‘goods’ it can buy are themselves of dubious value as they are ephemeral. Put simply, you harm yourself by becoming non-you in exchange for some short-term satisfaction. What you get in return for role-playing is, at its best, just like consuming sugar: it is uplifting at the moment, despite being deleterious over the long-term. And since I have long quit eating sugar, I can do the same with inputs to my body, my sense of self at-large, that are sugar-like in their effects.

A.: Is there a type of social activity you are comfortable with?

B.: Plenty! Basically everything where I do not have to apologise for what I do. I should not be explaining my actions. Gather the lads and let’s go play football. The more the merrier! Eleven-a-side. And if we get some new folks to join us, that is even better because we add an element of unpredictability to our game. I love that stuff!

A.: Your problem is not with strangers then, nor with meeting new people, not even with being sociable per se. What is it exactly?

B.: Hypocrisy: banal, innocuous, spontaneous hypocrisy. Though not in itself, but in light of social expectations. One’s hypocrisy, of the sort here considered, renders them an avatar in the others’ game world. The disconnect between the person and the persona is what troubles me.

A.: Have you ever doubted your conclusions?

B.: I have done so many times. At first, I would just go with the flow. The more I became aware of myself, the greater the challenge of handling social pressure. When I noticed the tension, I rationalised it as awkwardness on my part and I would apologise for it, coming up with excuses such as that I was tired, had not eaten well… You get the idea. Then I subjected that attitude to closer scrutiny and found it wanting. There was no awkwardness and no need to ever apologise. I am who I am. It is a fact, of the pragmatic sort, just like the Earth’s orbit around its star. Self-doubt is what led me to where I currently am.

A.: What would you say, then, if I told you that this otherwise elaborate analysis of yours could be just a hardened carapace that protects your sensitive innermost parts? Might it hide some insecurity?

B.: That could be the case. Though I have thought about this for too long and have gone back and forth with my opinions on the matter. Perhaps this insecurity is a deep-seated one, so tightly embedded in my core that it feels practically inseparable or indistinguishable from it. Maybe this is hypocrisy of another sort: of whispering lies to yourself to remove the sense of uneasiness. An intricate tale of half-truths woven together with suppressed desires and/or phobias that you want to believe is true. A curated image of self. Oh the irony of the Gods! All the reasoning, all the theorising… Maybe all of it is but a placebo, a substitute for true understanding; an understanding that must start from the non-rational, the non-theoretical, the non-verbal.

A.: And what would that be?

B.: I don’t know.