I was sitting outside of a cupcake shop in SoHo, next to a pair of elderly people. I could not tell what their relationship was yet, but it was certainly familial. A few minutes later I learned that the two were mother and son.
Few words were uttered between the two. The silence they shared was serene, peaceful, and understanding. Long intervals of silence followed by a few abrupt sentences. One interaction particularly stood out. The man — who looked like he could be an Alfred, asked his mother if she wanted a cupcake.
“Ma, you want a cupcake?”
“Ma. Want a cupcake?”
“No I don’t want a cupcake! Leave me alone and get back to your thoughts.”
So many questions about the dialogue I just overheard started to flood my brain. Did Alfred ever communicate his true feelings to his mother? Did she ever know what was on his mind? If he didn’t, was it because she conditioned him to think he couldn’t? Was he generally just introverted with his thoughts? Is there someone in the universe that knows what lies in the depths of Alfred’s mind?
This also got me thinking about the way we project ourselves in different social groups. Sociology has always been an interest of mine; I spend a lot of time thinking about human behavior, interaction, and communication.
We all communicate and behave differently within various social groups. The combination of the two create this ‘projection’ of who we are to those people, and how they interpret what type of human being we are (An interpreted self image). This is completely normal; it’s what makes us animals and allows us to evolve socially. These projections of ourselves vary from group to group, because we tailor our behavior to specific social circles.
Projection may sound distant, and fake, but it is the closest I can come to conceptualizing the thought. Synonymously, you can think of this as understanding. The way people understand you based on how you present yourself.
I want to avoid confusion by saying that I don’t mean we our not our true selves, when we project differently. It is just that we are a different version of our true self. This version is affected by the people we are surrounded by. I can be completely carefree and ‘real’ around different individuals, or groups, while slightly altering my projected self image. I find real beauty in this; it is part of our sociological make-up as humans.
Humans bunch groups of people into generalized individuals. Think of a few of the groups you associate with. Your family, your coworkers, your friends. Sure there is overlap within the groups, but generally there is expected behavior from each one of these clusters. Furthermore, within these groups there are sub-groups. Your friends that are yuppies, friends that are artsy, friends that enjoy cats. You like them all; each group fulfills certain needs, but your behavior changes when around each group. In addition, we clump people into generalized groups, we stereotype them - intentionally or not, because it’s easy. Our brain does a much better job digesting generalizations.
We tailor our ‘projected self image’ to these clusters. Whether we like it or not, that is what happens. Rarely do we project to individuals, but when we do, it’s unique and special. This version of you, this way you are perceived will not be replicated with anyone else. Think back to all the lovers you had. They probably all know you very well, they may or may not have loved you as much as you did, but there is one thing that remains certain. The version of yourself that they know, will be something ONLY they know.
Alfred was merely acting in the most natural way; the only way he knew. He was projecting a candid, custom tailored image, of who he is to his mother. It’s the only Alfred she knows, and she is the only version of a mother he knows. Twenty minutes later, Alfred and his mother got up from the bench, and continued their unique journey through life; their projections of themselves onto the other. That journey is all they know, and it belongs only to them.