Recently, I was discussing new social situations with a friend of mine. I planned on taking a job as a student assistant, and I was a bit insecure as to how I would handle myself. I have no problem speaking to groups, but I have the terrible habit of blushing profusely when someone addresses me suddenly. When I started complaining about how awkward and shy I can be, however, he looked at me
doubtfully. He wouldn’t soon describe me as ‘shy’, I guess – he’s seen me in fierce discussions often enough.
Then I remembered a different event, a few years prior. I worked as a part-time job in a store and was making small-talk with my boss. He asked me what I was going to do that evening, and I told him I was going to see some punk-band at an illegal squat. He started laughing, and I couldn’t blame him. I was usually very quiet and polite in the store, especially compared to his manner of noisily joking around with the regulars. Still, I would very likely be standing in a mosh pit that evening.
When constructing our own identity or defining the identity of others, we often make two mistakes. The first is that we like to lop qualities together that we think of as similar – someone who is very polite is most likely also nice and quiet. A person quickly angered is also violent. And although we grant that people may differ between situations, someone being the polar opposite of what you’re used to is at the very least surprising.
But the second mistake is an even greater one, and that is the assumption that these qualities – nice, dumb, wise, polite – even so much as exist in the real world. How often do you have to lie to be a liar? How often do you have to be nice to be a nice person? And how nice do you have to be, exactly? Do you have to give all your money to the poor or is simply being courteous in social interactions enough? I might not always be shy, and when I am, I am likely still less shy then some other people. What does that make me?
I remember watching a documentary a few years ago, about an English girl, raised strictly Christian, who would ask people whether they thought they were a good person. When they said yes, she proceeded to ask them if that meant they had never lied, never stolen so much as a cookie, never coveted someone else’s possessions – etcetera. The resulting answers might have given some people food for thought, but I was mainly interested in the way the question was posed. “Are you a good person?” So simple, and… so vague. There might well be no ‘good persons’ in this world at all. Just people who do things in varying amounts of ‘goodness’.