[I didn’t post anything on Monday. I’m sure nobody cares, but my macbook charger bit it while I was home for Christmas, so this is the first time I’ve sat down at my computer since Sunday (no worries — my charger is apparently covered by a class action suit, so I get a free replacement). I’ll get back on track with Sharing Something next week, but I figured since I was already off schedule, I would skip Fairweather Fandom Wednesday, too, so I could bring you some thoughts that came while I was home.]
Whenever I go home to visit my family, I always seem to have a bit of an identity crisis. Sure, some of it is fueled by home having changed — it is, after all, a place where people live and go about their lives, not a hermetically sealed shrine to my childhood — but I think the bigger part is what is expected of me is dramatically different when I go home. (Come to think of it, I may be having a bit of an identity crisis around the very idea of “home,” since it’s what I call both my parent’s house and where I currently live. I don’t really want to get into that can of worms, so I’ll just refer to my place as “Boston” and my folks’ as “Detroit.”)
What is expected of us can have a profound impact on our behavior. In Boston, I’m a productive member of a house of four, bringing home a decent salary and sharing the household chores; in Detroit, I’m somewhere between a house-guest and a useless child — I may be asked to take out the trash or something, but largely my role is to just wait until somebody prepares my next meal. I don’t particularly like those expectations, but I can’t help but live down to them, in spite of myself. This only reinforces the expectations, creating a feedback loop of identity that bears only the slightest resemblance to the identity I maintain in Boston. I think this is a relatively common phenomenon for people when they visit their parents, but what I’m interested in talking about today is how this idea extends into our everyday lives.
When George Harrison was asked what it’s like to be a member of the Beatles, he asked what it’s like to not be a member of the Beatles. We can only see the world through our own eyes, and we have a tendency to assume that what we see is simply the way things are. If someone is awkward, they make people around them uncomfortable, so they go through life only seeing uncomfortable people, and come to think that this is simply how people are all the time. This very well could influence their behavior, either by making them uncomfortable and therefore more awkward, or by desensitizing them to the discomfort of others, making them more uncomfortable. The same could be said of someone who is dumb and the way people are condescending around them, or of someone who is funny and the way people are always in a good mood around them. We shape the world around us which effects us, which effects the world around us etc. etc etc.
This phenomenon can take human interactions to some weird places, such as the quiet, hyper-polite interactions between grandparents and grandchildren, or the inexplicable machoism of dudes who think they’re good at pool. Those more obvious examples are masks that are only used in specific situations, but what about the masks that we can’t take off? What about the ones we don’t even realize we’re wearing? I may think I’m being myself, but what expectations am I living up (or down) to? Do we even have identities outside of these expectations?
In trying to illustrate the concept of feedback loops, I started finding them all over my life. It’s fun to pick them out to try and see how they started. For example: I hate small talk. I’m actually quite good at it, and can shoot the shit with the best of ’em when I want to, but I generally find it tedious, so often put little to no effort into holding up my side of the conversation. I’m also unusually comfortable with uncomfortable silences. I’m not sure which of those traits came first, but it makes me a bit of a difficult conversationalist. It really only comes out with people I don’t know very well or with people for whom I otherwise don’t have much to say, but man does it come out in those situations. In groups of people, this just makes me quiet until I fell I have something worth saying, but in one-on-one situations, it becomes much more noticeable.
I can tell the other person is struggling to keep the conversation going, I just can’t motivate myself to do my part (or even figure out how I could be doing my part). This makes for some weird moments in my morning carpool (I ride in to work with two coworkers, and often one or the other isn’t riding with us — both have suggested that we start listening to blogs or books on tape) or my occasional lunch hours out with coworkers. Part of this is me failing to live up to the expectations of decorum in conversations, but the other part is that I’ve now created the expectation that I won’t live up to those expectations. People at work now avoid one-on-one interactions with me because it makes them so uncomfortable (except for those too friendly to notice or too charismatic to allow me to rest on my laurels).
I’ve allowed a single quirk to spin into a feedback loop, reaching a stasis point where people think I’m a little weird. It’s probably not ideal, but it’s also not unpleasant, and I honestly don’t know what I’d have to do to break the loop, so it’s kind of defined that small portion of my life. Our lives are so full of these little feedback loops that I kind of think they define us. My small-talk-at-work loop was easy for me to trace back to its origins, but I’m starting to think every aspect of my personality is driven by (or at least engaged in) similar feedback loops. These loops all reach some kind of equilibrium, giving me a stable pattern I can point at as my identity.
This equilibrium is shaken up when I visit Detroit, as many of the loops I rely on lose or change their inputs, finding another very different balance point. While in Detroit, I was struck with the idea that people there think of me as particularly musical. I’ve spent so much time around other musicians that I don’t think of “the music guy” as being part of my identity, but it suddenly becomes one at home where being a musician isn’t as commonplace. I suppose this line of thought is driving me to the question of whether it’s how we perceive ourselves or how others perceive us that defines who we are — am I the music guy or not? — but the idea of the feedback loops seems to sidestep this debate altogether. It’s both and neither, chasing each other into oblivion.
Anyway, I’d like to hear if this idea of feedback loops speaks to anyone else — especially if you have an example.