Societal Chameleons: Our Ever-Evolving Personas
Will I ever be able to make it in the hardcore rap game? Of course not. If you knew me, the white, upper middle-class engineering student from Bellingham, the idea would be laughable. But why? Because rap is a culture very concerned with who’s “real” and who’s “fake.” It would take seconds for me to be lumped into the latter category. You could call me fake because I haven’t seen the same things, or lived through the same kind of struggle as someone “realer” than me, and it would be true, but it’s only part of the equation. What would really give me away is the obvious fact that I don’t speak the language. I don’t know how. If I tried, it would feel foreign, it would come across as insincere, and I would be outed. We just seem to know when someone is overreaching linguistically.
Barbara Mellix writes about this phenomenon in her essay “From Outside In,” where she details her journey in learning to bridge what she refers to as “Black English” and “Standard English”(1). Mellix, now a university professor, was raised in a black, financially poor, working-class environment – impressing upon her a unique set of linguistic skills and limitations.
As a child, Black English was the norm. This is her native tongue – the voice that comes most naturally to her. Standard English, the language of academia, felt forced, and was used only on rare occasions. Primarily it was practiced when communicating with people of a higher economic class, giving her a linguistic inferiority complex that lasted well into adulthood. As a result, when she got into college-level writing, Mellix didn’t feel comfortable in her Standard English voice. Just as it did during childhood, Standard English felt contrived, and it showed in her writing. In her mind, she was to the academic world what I am to the rap world: fake.
But let’s think about what that really means. I think, as the actions of the childhood Mellix demonstrate, that we all change, whether consciously or not, to suit our present situation. The way I speak and present myself at a late-night barroom pool game may be very different than the way I conduct myself at work, which is very different than the way I whisper to my lover in the wee hours. But I don’t feel fake in any of these scenarios. I’m perfectly at ease in all three. Is that simply because I’ve become comfortable with being a fraud? Should we consider any situational modification to our speech or mannerisms as false? If so, how do I even know which me is real?
I’ve been toying with this idea of alternate modes of communication for a while now, thinking, writing and discussing the intricacies with my peers. On one such impassioned occasion, during a conversation with my girlfriend, an interesting thing happened. I was excited about a writing I had just completed, and told her that she was mentioned in a section about pillow-talk. On her enthusiastic request, I read my entry aloud.
Using examples from my own life, nearly identical to those listed above, I argued that this situational transformation we undergo, meshing with the environment in which we’re immersed, is a natural process, often taking place on a nearly subconscious level. As the words tumbled out of my mouth, I could feel her attitude changing as she processed each sentence, but I continued (fearlessly). I thought maybe it was just uninteresting writing, or the horror of having the world know she likes to snuggle. Or maybe she was shaping some new idea that would expand, or destroy the concept entirely. It was likely a bit of all three, but the latter became the focus.
After a brief, contemplative pause, she spoke calmly, but critically, “Well, I hope the Matt who is present when we’re alone together is the real Matt.” Ladies know how to cut a man down. I assured her, of course, that it was, but the moment has since spurred a lot of internal thought. I knew where she was coming from. When you witness someone you know, communicating with others in a different way than they do with you, it can be hard to shake the idea that they may be putting on an act for one or both audiences. This was a wound, but I’d recover.
So with a renewed fire, I reread “From Outside In” (maybe a couple times), hoping to find some inspiration for my cause. Hoping to be able to better explain or defend my position if I were to expand on the topic; hoping to convince myself that when I’m on the phone to a customer, I’m not being fake or patronizing, I’m merely drawing from my linguistic repertoire in order to maintain a sense of professionalism.
I think Mellix hit the nail on the head when she wrote “how one speaks influences how one means” (155). What I take from this is that our different modes of interacting with one another are not masks, or alternate personalities we slip into in order to fool the world around us. They are only a very human way of expressing what we need to communicate to our audience, in a way that they will best understand. In the workplace, my mode of communication is much more formal and deliberate than it is at pillow-talk time, because I’ve learned over the years, that that’s likely how my audience will best receive the message. My professional voice, and Mellix’s adoption of Standard English are the result of our human intuition, guiding us toward improved communication with our peers.
As we mature, we drift in and out of social groups and educational systems. Along the way, we’re taught, whether directly or through immersion, how we need to speak and act, in order to function within a given circle. We learn to perform these transitions seamlessly, and if we follow that trajectory, we’re generally well-equipped to handle the stages of life it intersects. The exceptions come in the form of Matt, the world-famous rapper, and Barbara Mellix, the future college professor. Mellix was not prepared by her previous academic and social experience, for the type of writing that would be expected of her in college. She knew the words and tempo of Standard English, but because it had previously just been an act she put on to communicate with a higher class, she hadn’t learned how to truly express herself through it. In “From Outside In” she describes recognizing a “lifelessness” in her prose at this stage.
Because it was never an honest part of building blocks of her upbringing, Mellix had to work incredibly hard to make herself a member of the social circle that embraces “Standard English” as their language. It was what she calls her “desire to prosper” (156) that drives her, as an adult, to bridge the language barrier that was built in her adolescence, allowing her to find success in academia. She writes, “To recover balance, I had to take on the language of the academy, the language of “others”. And to do that, I had to learn to imagine myself as part of the culture of that language, and therefore, someone free to manage that language, to take liberties with it” (156).
What better way to explain to my girlfriend that the alternate languages we use in different scenarios aren’t some deceitful, calculated facade. It’s a positive metamorphosis that takes place in everyone’s life to some degree. Adopting these new languages, managing and taking liberties with them is part of the process of becoming a well-rounded adult. The effectiveness of our communication is indicative of our ability to adapt to, and acquire the tools of the unions of our ambition. In the case of my girlfriend and I, the language of happy, loving couples.
Mellix, Barbara. “From Outside In” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis, and Reflection. Ed. The Whatcom Community College English Faculty. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead, 2012. 145-157. Print.
copyright 2014, Matt Hoogestraat