Monday, February 7, 2011

What We Don't Know We're Revealing

Most writers are familiar with the advice, "show, don't tell." When we learned how to develop characters in fiction writing class, our professor talked about details that reveal things about a person, such as what kind of sandwiches they like. I've learned not to take lightly what my characters hang on their walls or what radio station they play in the car.  The "show, don't tell" rule always felt nonjudgmental.  There is no absolute standard that says it's better to spend your time reading Shakespeare than watching Spongebob - all that matters is what fits the character.

But character development from a psychological perspective has always felt judgmental. The traits that we use in psychology have clear positive and negative connotations.  Whenever you read about associations between interests, behaviors, and character traits, there is often a clear sense of what a person is "supposed" to be. While I am fascinated by what we can learn about a person based on their music preferences or how they enter a room, reading about it usually makes me feel uncomfortable.  Because articles that discuss first impressions and picking up on details often assume that we, the readers, are perfect.  It's assumed that we'll use the knowledge to decide who we want to hire or date or be friends with.  No one brings up the possibility that perhaps WE are the ones who will have to worry what other people can figure out about us.

What bothers me is the invasiveness - if you tell something, you have complete control of what you're revealing, but if you show something, you might not realize what other people are learning about you.  I have no problem saying that I'm not what someone thinks I should be, but only if I can say it directly.  I have shared a lot of very personal things directly and publicly, but what would feel more revealing would be to list my favorite books, movies, and TV shows on a profile. To let someone see my room or my music or my internet search history. When you say something that is clearly not socially acceptable, you can use a defensive tone, indicating that other people can take a hike if they don't like it.  But when you share something seemingly innocent such as your interests, you put yourself in a vulnerable position.  Telling is one thing, but showing - letting someone else actually see things for themself - can be really scary.

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