The Social Masquerade
The masks we wear tell others what to think of us. To the judge we present a law-abiding citizen - neglecting to mention the many laws we’ve broken over the years. To the bank we pose as a solvent citizen, without mentioning the size of our sports bets or our frequent overspending. To our employer, we pose as the diligent, hard working, eager employee with his shoulder to the wheel, his nose to the grindstone, and his eye on the ball. To the professor, we pose as a diligent scholar who seeks only knowledge and who is not concerned with the grade. To our ninth-grade child we pose as model humans for him to emulate. Our ninth-grade son, in the meantime, prefers to pattern himself after a rock star, a sports star, a cool eleventh grader, an actor in a commercial, or a comic book character. Much later in life, he may realize how much of his behavior was copied from yours - and he may not be happy about it.
We all go through this social masquerade, adopting a pose that others will approve of, cooperate with, and admire. We all wear masks. The Hezbollah warrior pictured above wears a mask that conceals everything about him. He could be anyone - a neighbor, a nephew, a taxi driver, a professor, a baker, anyone. His mask protects him, but it threatens us.
The person in the Einstein mask at right is pretending to be the great scientist himself - in a humorous way of course. To make sure we understand his mask’s message, the distinctive features features of Einstein’s face have been exaggerated into a caricature. The hair is fuller, whiter, and longer; the nose is much longer; the furrowed brow is more furrowed; the mustache is whiter, thicker, and longer; and the chin is a little weaker.
The identity mask that you wear around others should be a caricature of yourself, exaggerating those features that we want people to recognize as our distinctive characteristics. Give them a few adjectives to attach to you. If someone asked your coworker, lover, priest, or professor to describe you in fifty words, make sure your mask displays the characteristics that you want included in those fifty words. You may wish for your coworker to think of you as a diligent, energetic workhorse; your lover to think of you as masculine, spontaneous, and poetic; your priest to not think of you at all; and your professor to think of you as a scholar of the old school. Present yourself as a virtuous person, but select your virtues carefully - four or five virtues should be enough. Create a virtuous caricature of yourself and play that character in public.
What virtues should you consciously display? The Boy Scout Oath (described in detail here) lists all of the big ones in our culture. None of us can think of these boy scout qualities as anything but good: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, brave, and clean. Make a point of displaying these qualities openly in almost any situation. People will admire you all the more for it.
Three other boy scout virtues are optional. They may be admired by some audiences and not by others. Your boss will like it if you make a point of displaying yourself as obedient and thrifty. Some people will appreciate you if you are openly reverent, but others will be annoyed by it, so pick your audiences carefully.
Make a point of displaying professional virtues to those you work with. They will vary depending on your profession. You should make a point of displaying your excellence in professional skills. Make sure everyone sees you as a law-abiding good citizen.
Learn to speak of your accomplishments in an off-handed, modest way. Mention them as second thoughts, mere details that round out and embellish the story you are telling. Modest boastfulness (or boastful modesty) is a skill that must be developed. In some countries, open boasting is natural and accepted. Among Americans, modesty is the pretense. It is, of course, only a pretense. There are few modest people and many pretenders.
Remember that social status cannot be claimed, only granted. If you are wealthy or prominent, do not take your status or assumed reputation for granted. An egalitarian social style is preferred in this country. Rub elbows with the hoi polloi as equals and they will defer to you if they sense your importance. Do not become huffy in the “Do you know who I am?” style of huffiness. If there was ever a man with a realistic sense of his own importance, it was Julius Caesar, whose aspiration was to become the first ruler of the world. His legions loved him because he consorted with them, slapped backs with them, told them obscene jokes, and most of them would have died to save his life. Many did. Despite his easy interaction with his social inferiors, it never occurred to any of them that he was equal to Caesar. They granted him a high and beloved status which he could not have demanded and gotten.
No list of virtues is complete, because each situation calls for a different kind of hero to exhibit a different kind of virtue. In church display reverence and solemnity but on the battlefield display marksmanship and shout curses at the enemy while reloading.
You do not have to be a perfect person, and what a dreary life that would be. Just conceal your flaws and weaknesses as much as possible. Make sure others can see the approved virtues in you when you are making a point of exhibiting them. Be careful that you are not seen displaying the opposites of the boy scout virtues: treachery, double-crossing, indifference, hostility, rudeness, hurtfulness, grumpiness, cowardliness, and filthiness. These qualities are never viewed in a positive way.
- Most people will form an impression of you (your reputation) based on a caricature of your features. We just don’t have time to psychoanalyze our associates. Help your acquaintances form an opinion of you that is to your advantage by consciously displaying behaviors that support the reputation you want to develop.
- Do not give people too much detail, except for those closest to you. Those who only see occasional snippets of your behavior will be confused by details that do not fit into an easy pattern.
- Do not give people details about your inner nature that would trouble them. Whom would it benefit?
- Do not try to conceal everything about you from those around you. Let them see you, at the least, as a non-threatening person.