Do you ever find that you’re one version of yourself in class, another version around friend group A, another version around friend group B, and a whole other version in the bathroom at Stage Rage? That, my dear friend, is social chameleonism, or the experience of changing from one social interaction to another.
Social chameleonism is something we all experience in our day-to-day lives, whether we realize it or not. You know that old saying, “you are who you’re with”? When we interact with people, we pick up on their personality traits, catchphrases, behaviour, posture and, without even thinking about it, mimic those traits. For example, within one hour I could be caught saying “that is so bait dude” and “what an eloquent perspective on the influence of heteronormativity in education systems, fellow classmate” and “your lipstick looks FIRE on you, sis!” On exchange, I even noticed myself pronouncing words differently when I was chatting with people with accents… you can’t make this stuff up, mate.
I’m not talking about the moments when you consciously attempt to change or monitor your behaviour. There are some situations that require a conscious effort at being a particular version of yourself, like during an interview or an important meeting, for example. I’m talking about the moments when you might not even realize until later that you just said something or did something that you normally wouldn’t.
I used to feel some ambivalence towards my pattern of shapeshifting but then I learned something kind of cool. We do this whole social chameleon thing and we do it so naturally because it’s an adaptive response. When you mimic the people around you, you are increasing the likelihood that those people will like you. Evolutionarily, securing likability was beneficial for, like, ensuring your genes passed onto future generations or whatever (would you believe me if I told you I was a psyc major?). There are countless studies which demonstrate this phenomenon and it’s funny how foolproof it is (e.g., research shows that people mirror the body positions of the people they’re with, without fail, whether that means they cross their arms or their legs or widen their stance). We naturally try to blend into the environments around us because we’re wired to do so.
There’s a scene in The Office when Andy Bernard tries what he calls “personality mirroring” when he meets Michael Scott for the first time to secure likability with him. It’s straight up comical how quickly it works. (Did I just use an episode from The Office as evidence for my argument? Yeah. I did.)
Monkey see, monkey do. We change our behaviour from social setting to social setting, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an innate response that’s written into our everyday script – it helps us navigate the social world. Social “molding” is all part of human nature. We as human beings are susceptible to social influence – there’s no going around it. Who we are at our innermost core is up to us. As long as you aren’t being a shady binch, keep on keepin’ on with your social shapeshifting.