Of course, all of this was subconscious, and something I have only been able to understand as an adult. Children always help in moments of self-realization if you’re open to having your children teach you things about yourself. I’ve watched my children navigate moves – we have relocated them three times in the past 13 years – and seen how one became a chameleon and the other more steadfast in his self-identity. But even with the steadfast one, our youngest, I see glimmers of the chameleon, adapting to what my wife and I have taught the boys since they were old enough to parrot back swear words they heard on the playground: time and place.
Time and place. Chameleon. Adaptation. Context. Regardless of the label, I’ve witnessed many people adapt how they speak depending upon with whom they are talking and where that conversation is taking place.
My tendency to be a chameleon often raises a question in the back of my mind. Am I being disingenuous, or is my tendency perfectly normal?
When I was younger, depending on the circumstances, I could often find myself expanding my range of likes and dislikes to reach into places that definitely stretched the truth. Now that I’ve crested past 50, frankly, I don’t really give as much of a hoot, but I do still find myself being a chameleon. How I manipulate my visage is different, more subtle, and usually through language and by redirecting conversations to focus more on the person with whom I’m talking and away from myself.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as self-centered as the next man (and yes, there’s a reason I used that gender specificity). Ask me a pointed question about one of my interests and I will absolutely drone on about it for a while. Listen and watch carefully, however, and you will see a moment where I feel I’ve made the moment too much about me, and will put on the brakes, actively attempting to turn the momentum of the conversation.
You might ask, why the confessional about this subject today? I’ve returned to writing fiction – something I have not done in almost 20 years – and have been obsessed with the differences in how we all communicate. Twenty years ago, in a class on linguistics I started to wonder how we effectively communicate at all when you realize just how easily words can be misinterpreted: simple words like the word “cup.” Do this with a handful of friends, give everyone a piece of paper and pencil and at the count of five give everyone 30 seconds to draw what they think of when they hear the word “cup.” Spoiler, between 10 people you’ll invariably see at least three different interpretations of the word.
So then you incorporate elements like gender, culture, age, and socio-economic differences into the equation and you recognize the immense variability in how language is used and interpreted. If you are wanting to write authentic dialog for groups and sub-groups with which you don’t even closely identify, then the challenge becomes, well exciting. Some might say daunting, but I can’t get enough of it. Let’s just say I’ve been spending a lot of time in coffee shops and other areas out in public eavesdropping on conversations, jotting down quick notes about how different people are using language.
Through this exercise I’ve been hearing not just the differences in slang and idioms, but the differences in cadence in groups, cadence between individuals in a conversation, who listens, who does not, how that balance shifts, and the emotional ebbs and flows. And yes, the sad cliché rings true for Millennials and younger; their conversations are typically dominated by or centered around their phones and social media. One person in the group is always Snapchatting, or thumbing through Instagram, but who that person is shifts in the same way the listener shifts in conversations between older adults, which is fascinating for a few reasons, but I find the active conversations between adults far more captivating.
A question for you…do you think you are chameleon? If you’re a woman can you recognize differences between how you talk with your girlfriends, versus when a man comes into the conversation? And for men, how does the conversation change when a woman steps into the circle of a bunch of guys yucking it up? How do you speak with strangers, or loose acquaintances versus with close friends? For me close friends are the ones who truly see and hear who I am, which is why there is not much difference between how I speak with my old friends and my wife. I think I’m lucky that way. Let me know your thoughts! And that’s not a rhetorical question, I really want to know your thoughts.