Wednesday, May 23, 2012

M-M-M-My Persona

The Knack--"My Sharona" (mp3)

Here's a tricky one.  I have a friend for whom his "persona" seems to have become him.  And I have become weary of that.  And I don't really like the persona, for one simple reason:  I don't believe it.

I watch him stand in front of a group and I see the bluster, I see the mock-not caring, I see the pretend-angry, and I think, this has gotten so old, the only reason that you can continue to pull this off is because of the regular turnover of your audience.  I also think that one of the reasons that it doesn't work for me is that because beneath the mock-anger there is a real anger that, like a time bomb, can be ignited at any time, for any reason, by any comment that challenges the personal, that will immediately create defensiveness.  So the fake is not amusing, and the real is even less so.

How I will proceed in this post from here is somewhat tenuous.  For one thing, I'm not sure that we can all agree on what a "persona" is.  For me, it means that someone is assuming what is essentially a false or exaggerated mask in order to craft one's impact on a particular situation.  Yes, Merriman-Webster, yes, Wikipedia, you may borrow my definition.  As long as you give me credit.

I see that persona circumstance most often when I see adults dealing with children.  Some adults seem to think that they must become some variation of themselves in order to communicate most effectively with children--the "tough love" variation, the "accept me, I'm cool" variation, the "I've got to teach you independence before you're ready" variation, the "I suffered, so you will too" or its counterpart, the "I suffered, so I will be totally permissive with you" variation.  Lord knows, there are countless others.

Some would challenge me by saying that we are all of us always presenting a persona, so that the shift from one to the other is not that big of a deal.  That is hard to argue against.  In fact, I have challenged individual students or young teachers on more than one occasion to discard their persona so that I can see who they really are.

But I think that is a different issue.  There is no doubt that all of us "prepare a face/to meet the faces that we meet," as T.S. Eliot once captured so eloquently.  The persona, though, is something on top of that, it seems to me.  If we're one person in most situations, the persona is a different part of us that we haul out when we think we need to. 

I suppose that if I have a persona with students, it is the "I'll treat you like adults, even if you aren't" persona, because that is all I know how to do.  Another way to look at it is as the "I'll have no trouble meeting you where you are because I never grew up all that much either" persona.  That, too, seems to characterize my daily interactions with students or adults.  I tend either to make myself too young or them too old.  And, quite frankly, it doesn't always work, but I have to work within my own limitations.  And, I like to believe, it's me.

My other persona is the jester.  Get too close to my emotional core and you're going to get a joke that will hopefully distract you from trying to probe further.  Try to make me the center of attention and I'll position myself on the sideline, tossing out one-liners.

It's when a person I know willfully shifts from the person I think I know into some caricature of himself or herself that I really have trouble.  For then, I have to readjust from the person I know to the less sophisticated version.  I have to pretend like I know that persona and that it is valid and that I can speak to it adult to adult, when inside I'm thinking just the opposite.  Because that's the dirty secret of a persona--it's simplistic, it exaggerates a few characteristics, it's easily imitatable.  The reasons that personas aren't real is because they are too simple to be real.

Having experienced this enough, I know that the kind of mask I'm talking about is hard to take off once it takes hold.  However easy that is to see from a distance, from the outside, it may be impossible to confront if it's your mask.  I don't know.  Maybe someone will tell me.  Because we all know, without delving too deep, why personas exist.  They cover doubts, insecurities, failures.  They hide anything that we want to hide, more specifically anything we have to hide.  And the great irony is that we can all see what others wear, but not what we wear.

Maybe the bigger irony is that while it's easy to tell someone younger that you know they're faking it, try doing the same to a friend, a colleague, a boss, etc.   Because chances are, they know exactly what they're doing and they think it's good to do.  It's a conscious choice, a strategy, the best way to deliver the message, from where they sit or stand.  It's how they deliver their daily TED Talk.  So then, you're not only pointing out the persona, you're also criticizing its use.  And, to make matters worse, since the message is undoubtedly wrapped up in the persona, you are challenging that, too.

In these thin-skinned times, my friend, that isn't going to get you or me anywhere.  Better to pretend that I'm on board.  Do it enough, and I'll come to believe it, and then it can become a part of me.


cinderkeys said...

How old is your friend? Somehow I imagined that the people who adopt personas do so when they're young. It's too hard to pull off later, too obvious.

BTW, "The Stranger" is going to be going through my head all night, courtesy of this post.

Bob said...

Indeed, Cinderkey, that would have made a great companion song to this post. One of BJ's better songs, too.

george said...

The idea of your authentic self is only a persona that you've come to take too seriously. What more sincere way to explore this aspect of the human condition than to deliberately take on exaggerated personas, to feel them consuming you as an actor and then waking up? It is not necessarily an attempt to hide anything.

cinderkeys said...

If you're unself-conscious about how you're acting or coming across, if you're doing what feels natural, then that's not just a deeper persona. Personas require more effort.