The roles people play

I’m not sure when I first developed my pet theory that the roles we played at school can last a lifetime, but it was before I studied psychology or came across social theories that might back me up.

What I thought was this: school is where we have to learn to be ourselves in a group within many groups; it’s our first major test where we find out what our “role of least resistance” might be. That is, the performance that comes most naturally to us when faced with lots of peers — when faced with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to be rejected.

And school, just like the work place many of us are headed to afterwards, is where we spend a disproportionately huge chunk of our time on the planet.

I suspect my theory developed around 1995.

At the time I worked for Dell Computers. Each day I went to work in what I thought of as the George Jetson of offices. George was the father character from The Jetsons — a cartoon or “animated sitcom” from the early 60’s. And while I was not alive in the 60’s, The Jetsons made a brief come-back in the 80’s. In a nutshell, they were the sci-fi version of The Flintstones .  Given that I suffer from an intensely vague memory, it’s unusual that any TV programme, never mind The Jetsons, became so memorable to me. I guess it was because I loved the technology of their everyday lives. To this day I think of Jane Jetson in the morning as I ask myself Do I really have to take a shower, blow dry my hair, find something to wear, put on make-up? Why can’t life be like Jane’s where I could just walk over to the car-wash-like conveyor belt and come out the other side moments later all perfectly groomed by friendly robots, ready to go?

Anyway, I worked for Dell at their office outside Dublin which felt very much like a large hangar which made me think that just like George Jetson’s briefcase, the company could decide to fold up the whole building with the flip of a switch and move it to a different country. Who knew I was so forward-thinking and this is exactly what more and more companies would start to do.

But back to the point — inside this George Jetson briefcase of a building, I sat at my computer alongside two hundred other 20 something’s. So I’m pretty sure that’s when my “school theory” formed.

As for the role I played at school, over the years people have told me that I was some sort of outsider who managed to be cool, aloof and for some of the time … above being freaky. The other half of the time — or that is, to another group of people, I was just your average weirdo.

Which is odd, because I wasn’t particularly weird. I was just separate. And a bit of a loner, but a loner with “leadership energy” which drew other weirdos towards me — which I wasn’t always happy about because some of these kids were different for the sake of being different. And I’ve always thought that was stupid.*

So I was superior too.

Not that this role matched the me on the inside much at all (and this is another theory that I shall explore in a later post — that people with only a little gap between who they are on the inside compared with their outside role, suffer a lot less than those of us with a very large gap between who we really are and how we are perceived.)

I’m sensitive to the fact that we should be able to take a look at The Breakfast Club to find the character that I was. But we can’t. I was absolutely not what’s-her-face the posh snobby one (except possibly for one year of my life when I moved from a rich town where we poor to a poor town where we were, if not rich, then definitely wearing the wrong clothes). And if anyone says I was Ally Sheedy I won’t talk to them again. But it seems as if some version of who I was is probably captured in that movie. It was certainly the basic milieu of my teenage life. And it had the right soundtrack. But I guess I’m over thinking this because it was a movie about a cast of high school stereotypes from the American 80’s, so it’s no mystery I related to it … and if I’m not sure which stereotype I was — well, isn’t that the entire point of the identity crisis that’s otherwise known as being a teenager.

And so it was only when I got to Dell — a company on the outskirts of Dublin with cliques of its own and noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to an All-American, Catholic, Ice-hockey champion high school on the outskirts of Boston — that I realized that if you don’t belong in one place, then running off to try new places will backfire if you fail to notice that it is in your nature to be a non-belonger? And that non-belonging is born at school.

More on peer groups and social identity to follow soon …

*If you are a friend of mine from high school who was also a weirdo, I am not referring to you. You are a “keeper” and I did not regard you as weird for the sake of weird. I promise. I lost track of those people as soon I left America.



Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Work

2 responses to “The roles people play

  1. I suffer from an intensely vague memory ~ I need to remember this phrase. It fits me perfectly : )

    I’m really interested in this idea. I guess who I was at school does fit with who I am now: a person who on one level really wants to fit in, but who doesn’t really and spends most of her life on the periphery. That said, I’m much happier with this state of affairs than I was when I was at school, trying to dip my toes in lots of pools but failing to ever really get wet in any of them.

    Disclaimer: This is an after-a-few-glasses of wine kind of analysis, but it basically comes from a truth!

  2. nathaliehourihan

    In vino veritas!!! Yes, so I think you’ve nailed the answer to my own school theory in that life is about learning to become at ease with the person you found yourself to be when you first went out into the world.

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