Since childhood, I have never understood the people I uncharitably think of as “chameleons.” From the time we were teenagers, I’ve known two people who seemed to completely change themselves several times, based on who they were hanging out with. As teenagers, they started out in a relatively rough crowd in high school, adopting their friends’ way of speaking, dressing, and living totally, as if they had no tastes or thoughts of their own. That lasted through high school, then a few years later they moved to an affluent area, joined a wealthy crowd, and started talking about things like, “He’s from a really good family,” or “Breeding tells.” (What?? Do you even know what you’re saying?? I sure don’t!) The tough redneck stuff had been hard enough to take, but just as I thought that’s who these folks were, then they totally changed everything about themselves, from their opinions to their accents, based on the people around them. I felt abandoned, as if I didn’t know these two at all. Finally we all got into our 30s and 40s, and they settled into the suburbs. Now their emphasis was more on appearances, for the neighbors and fellow church members. I’m in the suburbs too and enjoy the quiet and privacy, so I don’t feel quite as lost anymore when it comes to these friends since we have similar lifestyles, but I’m still stubbornly independent. I now know that their behavior is due to their personality types, and I also know that my total opposite preference of always being ME, whether I fit in or not, is due to mine.
When I first went to high school, a school that no one else from my elementary school was zoned for, my mom dropped me off each morning around the corner from the school. Each day I’d get out of the car and I’d have to pass by a crowd of kids who were smoking and talking about things totally unknown to my introverted ears. This was the 1970s, so I had even less of a clue then than introverts would now of what was going on with most kids my age. I’d just walk briskly by, my mind thousands of miles away, on a mission to get to that school door. One day my mom told me that after I walked past this group, one boy broke away from the group to bow deeply to my departing back. Apparently the group thought I was a snob! Nope – I’m just me, following my own dreams, my own agenda, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of stopping to talk to that unknown crowd. Nowadays of course I’d probably glance at them and smile briefly at anyone whose eye I caught, but I at the time I was just a kid in a totally strange environment and that crowd was just another unfamiliar obstacle. I didn’t try to fit in, but part of that was because I wasn’t even aware that fitting in was an option.
As I went through high school and college, my surroundings taught me things and changed me a little at a time, sure. But I never “re-invented myself” just to suit those around me. It was more of a learning process and a matter of gravitating toward things and people I actually liked. Even after I got into the work force, I find that I’ve never wanted to be one of the group as far as eating in the break room with the other women or talking on and on about weddings or babies. I like to consider myself a “free agent.” I like to get along with everyone and joke around with everyone here and there, but I’m not going to try to fit into a mold chosen by someone else. That includes using office jargon to sound like an ass, or pretending to have the same hobbies as the boss in order to flatter him. I am me, and I try to make that a nice me, but I am always myself.
Just like anything else, of course, a balance would be ideal! The people I know whom I harshly thought of as “chameleons” actually make more money than I do. When they get to an office environment, they quickly take on the coloring of that office, including the corporate language, “Let me ping Bob… I’ll just reach out to Jerry…we really need a home run…” I really despise all that and am not about to do it myself, but it has its place in helping those folks to assimilate. And for introverts in high school and college, if you’re like me and usually enjoy “marching to your own drummer,” I at least think it’s a great idea to have a look at what the other kids are wearing, saying, and doing. It doesn’t mean you have to change what you’re doing, but sometimes we forget to have a reality check with the rest of the world and end up far down another path, all alone. My youngest son, an extrovert, had to gently tell his older brother what the guys were wearing these days. My older one was glad to have the advice – he had simply never looked at others in much detail! He’s a cool kid being exactly who he is, but he’d like to be wearing clothes that look like 2009, and thanks to a little hint from his brother, he is.
Likewise, although Joe Average often sneers at people who are different, we should stop and think – What if someone had convinced Einstein that it wasn’t cool to like physics? What if Bill Gates had decided to just blend in and get a Joe Average job? (Well, really that would be OK). 😉 I think people are supposed to be unique. We all have our own gifts and interests, and if we’d explore them instead of trying to blend in at all costs we’d most likely be happier and more productive. It’s a shame that a lot of society is suspicious of others if they aren’t average, “normal,” and typical. If all we had in this world was Joe Average fitting in, we’d never have an invention, a medical breakthrough, or anything really interesting to see or do.
I think blending vs. doing your own thing may be a sliding scale where we have a choice on how far in one direction or another we want to go. If we work for someone else, then we have to blend a little in order to work with the others in the culture the boss has chosen. I feel a very strong pull toward doing my own thing though, so I remain independent even when it might slow my career growth a little because I don’t constantly try to hang around with and pursue people who could help me. I do dress in the business casual clothes my company requires and try to keep my hair style and other details current, but I’m not afraid to tell everyone else to go on to lunch without me because I’m working on a geeky project of my own and am so obsessed I don’t want to stop.
What about you? Do you fit in perfectly in your school, office, or social circle, or do you think people consider you, “A little different, but nice..”..? If you’re not trying to blend, do you think the freedom is worth it, or would it be beneficial to try to “act” a bit and take on some protective coloring?
Photo credit: David Boyle