During a psych class in college I remember learning that many people have a subconscious tendency to shift their style of speech in order to match the people around them. My friend confirmed this at the time, saying it’s very common for him (as a non-native English speaker) to have his accent resurface whenever he speaks English with his family or any acquaintances who have an accent themselves. I immediately became very self-aware of my own changes in dialect that depended on who I was around. I spoke one way to my parents, another way to my girlfriend, and three more ways to three different groups of my friends. And that’s not even touching on how many different people I was capable of becoming when I type online. I started picking up accents from the places I traveled and then losing them when I left. The more often I realized I was doing this, the more confused I became about personality. The way I understood it, the idea is supposed to be that I’m adapting to my surroundings – so whenever I am introduced to a certain environment I alter some details about my true self to become more relatable to those around me. I couldn’t help but start to wonder; which one of these versions of me is the starting point? At what point in time am I actually being me?
In the past couple weeks I’ve spent a few hours thinking over this topic while running in the evenings. The weather has been cool at dusk and it’s quiet on the path near my apartment. The area is well lit but there aren’t many other people who go out to run after sunset. I prefer not to bring music with me lately, it’s nice to get away from constant stimuli occasionally and just let my mind wander. I’m confident that this is a reflection of my true personality. Undergoing an activity alone with no external pressure to be acting a certain way, this is me being myself. If I was out running with a close friend, I might feel pressured to match their pace and chat with them, even if I’d rather not. If they brought headphones, I’d probably listen to music as well. And that’s not to say I’d prefer they weren’t there running with me, but it does seem like my true self appreciates this time alone.
I’m starting to realize, however, that our conversational selves are an entirely different animal. The way we converse is largely subconscious – we don’t have the time to carefully choose each word of each thought at a normal speaking pace. Much like the subconscious actions you carry out while riding a bicycle, our brains are acting on a collection of memories before you have the ability to realize it. This means that our method of speaking is a result of training, whether intentional or unintentional, over the course of our lives. We can teach ourselves to be more confident when speaking and learn how to use positive body language in order to succeed in situations like job interviews. If you’re like me and you’ve never done that before, your conversation might reflect something different about you. You’ll pick up commonly used words and phrases from your family and closest friends. You might watch a lot of television and movies and find yourself mimicking the speaking style of your favorite characters or even quoting scenes without realizing it. So far as I can tell, your true conversational self is nothing more than a mash up of every word you’ve ever read or heard come out of someone else’s mouth.
And now I’m stuck thinking about how many other parts of my personality are affected in this way. Surely depending on who I’m living around I start to act differently, assimilating to create common traits among everyone I see most often. On many occasions I’ve been embarrassed to find myself doing something I find annoying coming from anyone else. I suppose that, in itself, is a personality trait that is true to me. Other people are less willing to adapt and will maintain their personality until those around them start to mimic their actions (or until they have no friends). As for me, my personality seems to be a collection of many people and many experiences from my recent past. I’m not so sure there’s a distinct way of ‘being myself’ if I was going to try and do so, and perhaps it’s not as important of an idea as I first thought. Depending on who you ask I might act like a number of different people, and I’m starting to think that’s okay.
Tomorrow, I’m going to make tens of thousands of decisions. Probably many multitudes more than that, actually, if you’re counting the subconscious stuff. As of now I don’t expect any one of those decisions to have a huge impact on my future. I’ll be debating which coffee blend to make in the morning, or what time I feel like going for a jog. I’ll make a whole bunch of poker decisions that will each win or lose me some money. I certainly won’t be finalizing the acquisition of a major tech company, or submitting my vote from the jury on whether or not to send a man to jail for the rest of his life. Let’s say I was though. Should it really be all that different?
Every decision could be treated with the same respect that we naturally give to the most important ones we have to make. I’d argue that doing so for every small daily choice will have a substantially larger impact on our lives than the sum of all the uncommon but major decisions. The tiny stuff that comes up multiple times a day – healthy eating choices, killing time browsing, good record keeping – can have a massive effect on our quality of life. But such decisions often get ignored during our day to day autopilot, towered over by the “real” decisions like which university to go attend or whether or not it’s the right time to ask out our crush. The truth is that the type of decisions that keep you up at night, the ones you could debate back and forth for ages because both options have so many damn pros and cons are, often times, trivial.
Let’s say your life is a sitcom and when you were a kid you dreamed of nothing more than performing on Broadway. You studied music throughout high school and performed in small budget plays in college but when push came to shove you really needed a steady income. Fast forward five years and you’re engaged to be married to the love of your life. You’ve been together for years and you can’t imagine life without your partner and Broadway seems like a distant memory but now I’m getting sick of this plot line and now you have to choose between Broadway and your wife.
By definition this decision is a life changing one. Each choice leads you on a completely different path for the foreseeable future. But what else is there to do but analyze the possible outcomes, make up your mind on which choice will likely yield the best result and choose it? Despite what our intuition might say, it really is that simple. Don’t let the magnitude of tough choices scare you into thinking you aren’t capable of making the right one. Focusing solely on the importance of the results of our decision can easily distract us from the primary importance of the decision making process itself.