The Cult of Personality


Someone once suggested that I’d know I was truly grown up when I became the same person around my parents as I am around my friends. I’m not sure why this was deemed to be a barometer of maturity. Frankly, I'm not sure any of us want to go through life being the same person at every turn.

I had an interesting revelation along these lines in the not so distant past. I noticed that my voice tends to jump an octave in certain situations, like when I’m ordering in a restaurant or calling an appliance repair shop. I fully understand why—all the women in my immediate family do the same thing—but the fact that I do drives me bananas. It’s as though I’m saying my regular voice, which is a bit smarmy, isn’t feminine enough for mass consumption. I go overkill on the pleasantness, leaving the other person thinking they're talking to a delusional housewife who’s been a bit too liberal with the quaaludes (or whatever be the modern equivalent).

I remember reading an article once about how babies enjoy our playing the part of babbling idiots. It was something about the higher pitch resonating a vibe of happiness in their new little brains. By the same token, they also enjoy the deeper tones Dad provides, likely because that voice sounds a bit more relaxed than Mom’s overly enthusiastic attempts to get a smile. In my own experience, I notice a happier, sing-songy voice when trying to sway my toddler’s opinion, a somewhat less annoying tone when speaking to my four-year-old, and an arguably tired and grumpy voice when speaking to my poor husband. Sorry Luke.

It reminds me of another article a based on a book co-authored by Elizabeth Dunn. The book is actually about how to spend money more happily (apparently this is challenging), but in it she suggests we should all try to treat our partners a bit more like strangers. Think about it. If you are in a similar situation to me, your significant other comes home around the time your children are turning into gremlins because you either haven’t yet presented them with dinner or you had the gaul to give them something other than hot dogs and cheese pizza. You’re not at your best. You’re not feeling the love. So they walk in the door and you’re thinking, “For the love of god, make the screaming stop!” as a dinner roll goes flying across the room and they're thinking, “Uh… hi?”

But let’s say they brought someone you’d never met home for dinner. Social etiquette makes it challenging to embrace anger when there’s a new person around. It feels as natural as wearing your underwear on the outside of your pants. So you’d probably laugh off the insanity, greet your guest and put on your best show. Eventually, you'd likely forget that you're supposed to be angry and end up having a good time. 

It would be interesting to know at what age we start to experiment with these different masks and whether it’s even a conscious undertaking. Most of us don’t have a personality switch we actively flip depending on who walks through the door, it just seems to happen like a pavlovian response. If it is even possible to reach that plateau of full growth (god, I hope not), perhaps it's not through being the same person with our parents as we are with our friends or with our spouse as are with our children, but through recognizing the difference and understanding the manifestations.