Thursday, September 03, 2009

Who are you?

As you know if you've been reading this haphazard missive for more than a month or so, I recently got the chance to see a work-in-progress musical -- the theatrical adaptation of Catch Me If You Can. I hadn't planned on seeing it, but when offered a windfall ticket I certainly didn't say no. Catch Me is the (streamlined and slightly sanitized) story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., one of the 20th century's most successful con men. He was able to pass himself off successfully as an airline pilot, a doctor, an attorney and a university teacher, and he passed millions of dollars in bad checks before he was finally caught. The musical version was fun and high-energy, though it could still use a few judicious song deletions before it goes to Broadway.

During intermission, my friend Nick and I got to discussing Abagnale's exploits -- and, more specifically, how he exploited certain social and cultural assumptions. Early on in the play, Frank's dad declares that "a man is his uniform," and Frank uses this social shorthand to his advantage time after time, as people see only the uniform and never bother to notice the tall teenager who is wearing it. Abagnale also was able to exploit a very common Western practice -- confusing or conflating identity with profession.

When people ask a variation of the social introduction question "Who are you," how do you answer? There are numerous possible responses. You might respond to the question with your name or nickname, because it conveys immediate, coded information about your personality, family tree, religious beliefs and social status. You might also respond by declaring your religious or ideological beliefs -- "I'm a Christian," "I'm an atheist," "I'm a socialist" -- with the idea that these beliefs convey a deeper sense of identity. Or you might respond by identifying your star sign or birth order -- "I'm a Libra," "I'm the youngest in my family" -- to let the questioner know that you give credence to the mystic traditions associated with your date of birth.

In our society, we overwhelmingly respond with "I'm a --" and fill in the blank with the name of some profession: writer, singer, teacher, computer programmer, plumber, etc. I believe our society is obsessed with occupation as the primary indicator of identity. We focus so much on it, in fact, that when you come across a woman whose occupation -- wife and mother -- is unpaid, she is loath to admit it in a social context; similarly, when you come across a man who is currently unemployed, he will rarely admit it, preferring to describe himself as "self-employed" or "between jobs" rather than say he has no profession at all.

The polar opposite of Frank in the play, FBI agent Carl Hanratty, is painted as the embodiment of this cultural trait. "I am my job," he declares in one song -- and he means it. He spends all his time at the office, eats and sleeps at his desk, mans the phones even on Christmas Eve, and has even lost his wife and family to the siren song of profession. His fixed sense of self is like a solid rock in the middle of the stream that is Frank's flowing, ever-changing identity.

But profession, while a strong influence and decidedly necessary to one's continued existence, is really only one facet of a multi-dimensional personality. I think it's important to recognize the other aspects of one's identity as well: one's place in a family, personality type, beliefs, friendships, hobbies and interests, hopes and desires, passions and loves. If you choose to zero in only on what you do, you flatten out that personality into a single plane, and in the process lose track of all the other qualities that make up who you are. Likewise, if you have no fixed sense of self and are constantly changing to become whatever you think others expect, eventually you'll find that you have become a kind of sieve, incapable of holding onto anything in your personality that you can call your own.

So maybe the next time I'm at a party and someone asks me, "Who are you?" I'll just smile and say, "Guess you'll just have to watch and find out." (And I'll get pegged as "that weird chick drinking the apple beer" again. Ah well.)


tlawwife said...

I always said I was a wife and mother rather than a housewife because I am such a bad housekeeper. I told people that the house would divorce me if I were married to it.

I don't know how I identify myself now.

MarieC said...

I usually say "I'm Eldon's mom," or "I'm Jason's mom."

tlc illustration said...

There are no simple answers, are there...?

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

Soozcat said...

Ummm... okay. Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous.

Jaleta Clegg said...

It depends on the social situation as to how I identify myself. Otherwise I'd bore people spitless listing all my "occupations".

Chrys Houghton said...

I would call myself The Photobomb Menace. But I do have a Facebook hashtag called that: Started it when I photo bombed a Senior Year picture! LOL! But really your character can be judged from others as well.