Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A relatively recent reality

In Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, she talks about a cultural change that began to take place at the beginning of the 20th century: the shift from a "Culture of Character" to a "Culture of Personality".

I'm fascinated by this because it shows that our society's obsession with image is a relatively recent thing. According to historian Warren Susman (whom Cain quotes in her book), image only began to achieve a status of great importance after the industrial revolution, when people moved away from their small towns and began converging in cities. Previously, they had lived among communities who had known them all their lives, but now they had to prove themselves to strangers, and that's when the ability to "sell yourself" became important.

    In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honourable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private... But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them... "The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer," Susman famously wrote. "Every American was to become a performing self." (p.21)

No wonder we talk about people wearing masks. The metaphor fits.

Susman's research revealed that self-help books of the 19th century emphasised virtues like duty, morals, manners, integrity, and good works, while by the early 20th century, authors were advising people how to be magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, forceful, and energetic.

    ...by 1920, popular self-help guides had changed their focus from inner virtue to outer charm -- "to know what to say and how to say it," as one manual put it. "To create a personality is power," advised another. (p.22)

At the same time, Cain says, advertisements moved from "straightforward product announcements" to the kind of ads we see today -- the kind that prey on people's insecurities and promise to give you a better life, make you more successful, bring you more friends, get you the man or woman of your dreams, if you will only use that product.

As someone who chafes against society's ridiculous preoccupation with image, I'm comforted by the thought that we haven't always been like this; but we've gone so far in the other direction now that I don't know if we will ever go back. We are so wired to respond to those who fit The Image that studies have shown a person who speaks out often, speaks well and speaks confidently is usually considered more intelligent, more likeable and even better-looking than someone who is quieter or speaks more slowly! Cain talks about how people tend to look up to, trust and follow leaders who have more charisma, who are able to project the image we want to see. The problem is that these people might not be good leaders. They are simply able to make you BELIEVE that they are. (This is also why democracy isn't working all that well, by the way. Because people are inept at evaluating who would be the best candidate for office.)

I am going to go one step further and say that this might be one of the reasons why the divorce rate is rising in many countries. The preoccupation with image causes both genders to portray an image of themselves which may not be all they truly are. We "sell ourselves" to potential employers, and when it comes to relationships we also think we have to "sell ourselves" to a potential partner.

At work you usually don't apply for jobs you aren't capable of or don't have some aptitude for, so if the employer does decide to hire you, you're able to perform more or less as promised. On the other hand, when both partners "sell themselves" to each other, they each fall for an image which doesn't truly reflect the person inside. Some of it might be truth, some might be exaggeration, some might be omission, and some might be wishful thinking. Marriage is all about intimacy, but how can you become intimate with an illusion? Especially when your own mask prevents true connection with the person you really are?

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