Caught in the Act

To what extent are we, in the context of routine social interaction, not simply being, but rather, acting?


We’ve all heard it before: This celebrity plays the nicest character. But in real life? I heard he’s a complete jerk.

A celebrity’s persona might be vastly different when the camera’s rolling and when it’s not. But, to some degree, this is true of all of us. When we’re trying to win the appreciation of a new group of friends, or trying to ace that job interview, the cameras are rolling. And when we’re at home, chatting over the dinner table, the cameras are off. Professional actors are just like us in that sense: sometimes we’re acting, and sometimes we’re not.

The distinction between acting and simply being might not be so clear, though. After all, aren’t we always acting at least a little bit? Even among close friends, we might pretend to be a bit more interested in that story that we really are, to avoid offense. Or we might laugh a bit harder at that joke that didn’t quite hit the mark. The question becomes: are we ever truly being? Or is acting all we ever do?

Social Chameleons

One anonymous Reddit user confessed: “I am a social chameleon. My entire personality is stolen from the people I’ve met.” He went on to add, “This includes all mannerisms. Everything from the way I talk to the things I like. Nothing is original. Another user chimed in: “I think that’s…everyone.”

One could make the argument that we all simply take experiences and ideas from our surroundings, assimilate them, and then project them back to the outside world as needed. Variability in personality simply stems from what we experience, what we choose to take from these experiences, and how skilled we are at embodying and expressing those ideas we’ve chosen to take. But, at the end of the day, we’re all just acting.

Some are better than others at embodying and expressing their ideas. Further, the best actors will take stock of their surroundings, and deliberately tailor their behavior to meet the demands of the situation. That’s why the best film actors can convincingly play diverse personalities. And, if we would like to succeed, whether that means getting that job, winning those friends, or even being intimate with a romantic partner, we ought to become better chameleons.

Well, that’s disconcerting, isn’t it? One would like to believe that acting isn’t all there is. If that were the case, life wouldn’t seem very genuine. We would hope that, at least in some of the most intimate of situations–around the campfire with a few lifelong friends, or at dinnertime with the spouse, on a weeknight, after the baby falls asleep–we could stop acting, and simply be ourselves.

Of course, life still has its demands, and we’d have to act at least some of the time to achieve some success.

But perhaps there’s a way to meet life’s demands, not by acting in the sense we’ve discussed so far, but rather through a different sort of being.

Method Actors 

Method acting is a technique where an actor immerses himself in the life of the character he wishes to play. Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, is famous for going to great lengths to live the lives of his characters. While preparing to film Gangs of New York, where he would play Bill the Butcher, Day-Lewis took an apprenticeship at a real butcher’s shop, where he actually learned to butcher, process and prepare meat, staying in character all the while. On set, Day-Lewis would sharpen the knives between takes. He also refused to wear a warm jacket, since such a jacket wouldn’t have been in keeping with the time period. As a result, he contracted pneumonia–and rejected modern medicine in his treatment!

Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of Gangs of New York

Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of Gangs of New York

The notion of method acting–and the fact that it works so well–should have much relevance to our discussion today. Method acting allows actors to represent their characters, without having to think about it. Instead of deliberately acting like Bill the Butcher, Day-Lewis simply lived the life of Bill the Butcher, such that, when it came time to film, he didn’t have to act. Day-Lewis simply was, and by being, he looked like Bill the Butcher instead of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Instead of acting, method actors alter their being in such a way that their being looks like acting.

We can all be method actors too. We can focus on being, rather than acting. And, when life demands acting, we can simply change our mindset so that our being satisfies the demands of the situation. Perhaps the key to good acting–and, more broadly, to success–is being able to put yourself in many shoes, as opposed to simply acting like you’re wearing them.

Two types of people

After doing some research, I found that my distinction between actors and be-ers might have some scientific validity [3]. Mark Snyder, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota, found that people tend to vary along a spectrum of self-monitoring. Position on the self-monitoring scale is consistent through life, and it’s visible even in childhood. For example, 7-year-olds were asked to choose which movie they preferred: Star Wars or ET. They also had the option of first viewing what their classmates chose, too. Those high in self-monitoring spent more time studying the choices of their classmates before agreeing to offer their own choice.

Those high on the self-monitoring scale are what we’ve called social chameleons. They interpret their surroundings, monitor their behavior, and then modify the latter to suit the former. Those lower on the scale, on the other hand, are more stubborn. They prefer to stick to their values, no matter what the social cost.

Living at either extreme of the spectrum has its consequences. Those high in self-monitoring tend to struggle to form meaningful relationships. They, for example, are less willing to commit to serious romantic relationships and take longer to become emotionally-intimate with partners. They’re more likely to fantasize about sex with someone other than their partner–and even have such fantasies during sex with their partner. Dr. Snyder writes, ”Thus, we might expect low self-monitoring individuals to display greater commitment to, and stronger attachment to, their marital partners.”

But those lower on the self-monitoring scale face consequences, too. Their stubborn nature might make it difficult for them to meet life’s diverse demands.

This is where method acting comes in. I argue that someone low in self-monitoring–someone who values being himself over all else–can meet life’s demands simply by putting himself in a mindset such that his self does meet life’s demands. This way, he’s not acting. Rather, he’s achieving the same result by being.

Being genuine is valuable. Staying true to one’s self feels good. But so does meeting life’s variable demands. A good method actor can have his cake and eat it too.

Of course, it’s not easy to stay in character as Bill the Butcher for six months. But it’s a skill we could all consider working on.


  1. Reddit post on being a social chameleon
  2. Crazy stories about Daniel Day-Lewis’s method acting

This entry was posted in Culture.

2 comments on “Caught in the Act

  1. Ben says:

    I wonder where our friend Eugene Onegin falls? From Falen’s translation: (Let’s just say if only you could see the original.)

    How early on he could dissemble,
    Conceal his hopes, play jealous swain,
    Compel belief, or make her tremble,
    Seem cast in gloom or mute with pain,
    Appear so proud or so forbearing,
    At times attentive, then uncaring!
    What languor when his lips were sealed,
    What fiery art his speech revealed!
    What casual letters he would send her!
    He lived, he breathed one single dream,
    How self-oblivious he could seem!
    How keen his glance, how bold and tender;
    And when he wished, he’d make appear
    The quickly summoned, glistening tear!

    How shrewdly he could be inventive
    And playfully astound the young,
    Use flattery as warm incentive,
    Or frighten with despairing tongue.
    And how he’d seize a moment’s weakness
    To conquer youthful virtue’s meekness
    Through force of passion and of sense,
    And then await sweet recompense.
    At first he’d beg a declaration,
    And listen for the heart’s first beat,
    Then stalk love faster—and entreat
    A lover’s secret assignation…
    And then in private he’d prepare
    In silence to instruct the fair!

    How early he could stir or worry
    The hearts of even skilled coquettes!
    And when he found it necessary
    To crush a rival-oh, what nets,
    What clever traps he’d set before him!
    And how his wicked tongue would gore him!

    Onegin too falls to emotional failure and boredom.

    But was he happy in the flower—
    The very springtime of his days,
    Amid his pleasures and their blaze,
    Amid his conquests of the hour?
    Or was he profligate and hale
    Amid his feasts to no avail?

    Yes, soon he lost all warmth of feeling:
    The social buzz became a bore,
    And all those beauties, once appealing,
    Were objects of his thought no more.
    Inconstancy grew too fatiguing;
    And friends and friendship less intriguing;
    For after all he couldn’t drain
    An endless bottle of champagne
    To help those pies and beefsteaks settle,
    Or go on dropping words of wit
    With throbbing head about to split:
    And so, for all his fiery mettle,
    He did at last give up his love
    Of pistol, sword, and ready glove.

    We still, alas, cannot forestall it—
    This dreadful ailment’s heavy toll;
    The spleen is what the English call it,
    We call it simply Russian soul.

    • Josh says:

      Haha, wow, this quote is AMAZING.
      Onegin must be a social chameleon, high on the self-monitoring scale.

      At first, I wasn’t sure. He’s certainly a good actor. But good acting can be achieved two ways: either by being high on the self-monitoring scale, and by manipulating one’s affect to suit his surroundings; or by being low on the scale, and by altering one’s mindset such that he behaves in such a way as to suit his surroundings automatically.

      And, from the outside, the two very different methods may be indistinguishable. Both produce good acting.

      However, the fact that he became bored and listless suggests that he is of the former type–high on the scale. Those high on the scale, as described in the NYT article, might be able to fit well into every situation, but they have no home base. When they’re alone, by themselves, they really have nothing to turn to, since their identity is so ill-defined.

      From the article: “Dr. Deutsch saw such people as suffering from a fragile sense of themselves, constantly seeking to shore themselves up by winning the approval of others at all costs.”

      Onegin acts well, but he also faces the consequences. This is characteristic of the social chameleon.

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