I’m reading David Brooks’ “The Social Animal.” He spends a lot of time strolling along the meandering life-paths of his purposefully uninteresting characters. The characters lie flat– tables upon which Brooks places a generous buffet of juicy social psychology theories, layers and layers of glistening cultural psych experiments conducted on college students, tart, textured neurology research pertaining to love, baskets of plump education theories, and a few perky sprigs of common conclusions about sexual selection and beauty.
This is the bit that inspired me to write this post:
The people in the executive suites believed that the school existed to fulfill some socially productive process of information transmission– usually involving science projects on poster boards. But in reality, of course, high school is a machine for social sorting. The purpose of high school is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure.
Wow, block quote. I’m feeling this enormous urge to put a citation in a parenthetical below. I’m resisting. Resisting….Resisted.
I like how David Brooks almost always writes with authority. If people are going to have opinions and write them down for other people to read, they might as well believe in what they say. And then they might as well make it clear that they think they’re right. It’s much more fun that way.
Am I the artsy one?
I don’t know why it takes me so long to get to the point sometimes. I’m sorry.
A machine for social sorting. The image is striking. Let’s say for a moment that it’s true. It made me wonder, unsurprisingly, which chute would I have been funneled into. Into which box would I eventually have been deposited?
Am I the put-together one?
A little later in the book, Brooks describes how many distinct personalities people tend to have. People aren’t static, we’re fluid. We adapt instantaneously to different environments. People who can modulate more fluently are more popular. Sometimes I notice myself being awkward in situations I thought I’d mastered, or confident in situations I thought would leave me quivering and babbling. I interviewed an ex CIA operative a few weeks ago and was shockingly funny. I talked with a woman I’ve known for years and sounded like I’d just learned how to speak on Tuesday. The woman I’d known for years has seen me be incredibly awkward before. Maybe I still feel like a kid around her. All the CIA operative knew about me was that I work for AOL and have the ability (y’know, through my editor, of course) to get her a lot of publicity.
Am I the mischievous one?
Occasionally, in a fit of predictable twenty-something navel-gazing, I try to figure out what I’m like. Who am I? What’s my personality like? Am I charming? Am I hopeless? Am I both charming and hopeless?
The idea of having been sorted in my teens is frightening. And it’s confusing. The results might have been disastrous. I was very serious and sensitive for a long time. I cried every time I read something about racial injustice (sometimes I still do). Not kidding. Every time, it made me furious and helpless. I was one of these people who stared out at the world , thinking, “How can people be so mean to each other?”
With other kids your age, that is an attitude that seems roughly the equivalent of a bleeding hind leg on a gazelle that stumbles into the hunting ground of a pack of lionesses.
Am I the dark, brooding one?
Maybe I would’ve been destroyed and rebuilt. Maybe I would’ve adapted and become cool. My parents didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, and gradually my dad’s business did better. So I would’ve fit into different economic classes at different times. I am pale skinned and Jewish, so I guess I look racially privileged even though a lot of people somehow still hate Jews. I have always had friends who thought I was awesome, guys who were madly in love with me, and confidence that I was interesting and worth-knowing. Maybe I would’ve had friends in all different groups. Maybe I would’ve been eclectic and fascinating and slightly mysterious. Maybe I would’ve been nerdy and overworked and ambitious and silent. That doesn’t seem like me, I’m pretty talkative. But who knows?
Would I have been sorted into the socially successful bin or the academically successful bin? Or neither? or the bin for hybrids who are both and destined for corporate greatness?
Am I the subversive one?
I don’t like the risk.
I guess in a sense I grew up confused. I had some labels, of course– you can’t not. But in general I moved from social situation to social situation without any trailing stigma. This also meant that I never learned that I deserved success, because I didn’t have a popular/cool identity to ride on. So I felt uncertain, but also open-ended. And sometimes I was fabulously popular. And sometimes I was the nerdy, quiet one. And nothing ever ended up sticking.
Am I the loud one?
Which might be why I still don’t know.
Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe it’s better if I never find out.