The Social Chameleon

I’ve never had one discrete group of friends. Instead, I’ve preferred to rotate between athletes and intellectuals, programmers and party people, architects and, well, non-architects. My idea of a kindred spirit is someone who can make the rounds with me – conversing about art in German with Sprocketts; comparing hangovers with the local drunk; arguing architectural theory with colleagues; behaving like a hooligan on the soccer field. And I have re-invented myself constantly: from singer to fencer; from Wall-Streeter to Architect to essayist; West-Coaster to East-Coaster to citizen of the world. I can morph from the girl coyote-ugly dancing on the table to the one in the corner disparaging Sartre in 4.6 seconds.

Feeling introspective one day, I searched the internet for the term ‘social chameleon’ and was less than charmed when most of the results were negative chatter about people who are too adaptable. Granted, many of the discussion groups seemed to be populated with adolescents using words like “two-faced” and “flighty”. But in slightly more elevated circles I found the opinion that a social chameleon will reflect the mood of a group and suppress any opinions of his own; that this person has little endemic personality and that his only desire is to blend in. In a section entitled ‘How to recognise (a chameleon)’ — from the BBC h2g2 website, no less — I read the following description:

A social chameleon has a few weaknesses. These can be used to recognise them. The simplest way to identify one is to ask a question that has no prior context, and which requires an answer that would identify the chameleon as belonging to some society or other. For example asking ‘where are you from?’ when you first come in contact with a chameleon will typically result in an evasive answer. If you do get an answer then it is probably multifaceted. This is done in the hopes that the requestor will find at least one aspect of the answer satisfactory.

A little above that I found: “Chameleons have no problems with adopting contradictory rules for different situations – the need to blend in is paramount. If the situation has few participants, then there are few observations that can be made. Then the chameleon has to use a backup strategy – normally do nothing and observe.”

‘What the hell is going on here?’ I thought. I don’t recognise myself in these characterisations.

I recognise fictional situations: Woody Allen’s Zelig; Leonardo di Caprio’s character in Catch Me if You Can; and a vague memory of an Italo Calvino story that I can no longer find – all of which contain characters who lose themselves in their circumstances. But these are parables: a constant theme of literature is the difference between how people present themselves to others, how they imagine themselves, and how they really are. Does anyone actually know someone who changes himself so completely?

I fact I have met someone who fits the strict sobriquet of chameleon. In February of 2008 I went to a Yale Club party in Boston with a friend who is an alumna. She and I began talking with a couple of men, one of whom claimed to have done some interesting things — among them that he had sailed around the world; that he owned a company that manufactured satellites and sold to the Department of Defense; and that he taught physics at Harvard. When I went to leave he asked for my phone number and I hesitated – he was significantly older and I didn’t find him attractive, but on the other hand I enjoy getting to know remarkable people. As I swithered, my friend whispered to me “You have to go out with him. He’s a Rockefeller!” I’m ashamed to admit that curiosity won. So I agreed to meet him later in the week to see an exhibit and have coffee.

The next day my friend and I were gossiping about the previous evening and agreed that there was something off about this Rockefeller. She tried to look him up in the Yale Alumni registry and he didn’t appear. When I googled him, no Clark Rockefeller was listed as having done anything, let alone anything of note. What sticks in my mind about our appointment at the museum is that whenever I mentioned something I liked, he immediately joined me. I said I had grown up going to the opera; he said he owned thousand of operatic recordings. I speak a few languages; he had to demonstrate his proficiency. He told me that he had grown up in Manhattan, but when I questioned him about his accent sounding wrong he claimed he had lived in South Africa as a child. I asked about some Rockefeller cousins I’d known in high school and he brushed them off as a different side of the family.

I found him suspicious; more so, I found him to be a pompous pedant and after two meetings decided I didn’t need to get to know him further. I thought no more about him until my friend emailed in August to say there was now something on the internet to see about Clark Rockefeller. He had kidnapped his seven year old daughter and was on the run; after an international search, federal agents determined that he was originally a German national who had co-opted different aliases (all of them aristocratic-sounding) every few years around the US and had not only swindled people, but had even potentially murdered some of them.  (See the film about it: His final identity was so persuasive that he had even managed to convince his wife for 13 years – though most people watching the story had trouble believing that a senior partner at McKinsey would be so gullible.

In fact what is fascinating about the story is that he did manage to convince so many people that he was who they wanted to believe he was. He must have behaved slightly differently with every person he knew in order to stoke their egos into accepting him. He is now sitting in prison, claiming through his lawyer that he doesn’t remember his childhood and that he thinks his real name is Rockefeller. And in an odd way I believe him. The sort of pathology required to put up such elaborate shams for such a long period of time is not one that most of us understand. Yes I was suspicious of him, but I would never have imagined that he had made up his entire life.


The majority of people, however, are not quite so damaged. Most of us fall somewhere on the spectrum of what Mark Snyder, a professor at the University of Minnesota, coined ‘self-monitoring’ — which is exactly what it sounds like. High self-monitors regulate their behaviour in order to make a good impression on anyone they come into contact with. They pay close attention to social cues and tend to analyse data before acting; they have different friends for different activities, often choosing experts in each; and they tend to act like different people in different situations. Low self-monitors, on the other hand, consider it more important to act in accordance with their principles no matter what the situation. They seem to have a stronger sense of self, but also have a harder time fitting in; they have a few close friends with whom they do all their activities. Politicians, actors, and successful business people tend to score higher on the scale of self-monitoring.

There are advantages to both ends of the spectrum. Low self-monitors report greater satisfaction with intimate relationships, whereas high self-monitors tend to enjoy more professional success and are perceived as more popular. On the flip-side, extremely low self-monitors can fail to connect with the outside world because they refuse to change anything about themselves to fit in; extremely high self-monitors are con artists who cease to exist as people of substance – witness the Clark Rockefellers of the world. And in terms of romantic relationships:

The desire to alter one’s personality to appropriately fit a given situation or social climate prevents high self-monitors from presenting their true selves during intimate interactions with their romantic partners. High self-monitors are very likeable and successful people. However, it appears they’re just not deep. [Northwestern University professor of communication studies Michael E. Roloff, quoted here. ]

A few years ago I ran into R., an acquaintance from my first year of college who I hadn’t spoken to in 15 years. We chatted, exchanged email addresses, and promised to get together. That hasn’t happened yet, but along the way we became facebook friends, where I’ve observed his activities. He is obviously a ‘broker’– he’s connected to thousands of people on facebook, Linked-In, etc., and lets them know what he’s doing via twitter every day — and confessedly a high self-monitor. He is constantly in the process of improving himself: R. says he tape-records all his presentations, then listens to them carefully in order to weed out anything less than perfect. His work has taken him from leading party trips to Ibiza to marketing and sales jobs.

When I knew him at age 18, R. had a heavy accent, which at 35 he has almost managed to eliminate. “Talking is how I assert my power,” he claims, but also pays close attention to his clothes and haircut, calculating when to be slick and when to be ‘flabby’. In his twenties he calculatedly studied acting and dance in order to understand how his body telegraphs clues. He is known for his ability to get into the swankiest parties in New York and admits that he does so because it’s a test: he likes to see if he can adjust himself enough to fit in or even dominate. One reason he doesn’t care much for the city he currently lives in is that its social scene is not as sharply defined as that of New York – there’s not as much challenge involved in playing with image – though when pressed he admits that he might still be living in New York if that game didn’t ultimately bore him.

When asked about his relationships, R. says that he cycles in and out of groups, using social media to keep in touch. He describes his friends as ‘warm acquaintances’; he says that his philosophy is to not hold on too tightly, recognising that flexibility breeds a certain amount of distance and that a part of him enjoys a bittersweetness when moving on. The only time in our conversation that he stumbled slightly was when I raised the idea of high self-monitors having less successful intimate relationships. He revealed that his affairs with women are often about power, about whether he has the ability to conquer a woman who may seem out of his league — although he also maintained that he has been in some way in love with every woman he’s ever been with.

I asked R. why he thinks he is the way he is, and he answered swiftly: “I always wanted to be loved.” He grew up competing with a twin brother who was perceived to be smarter and more talented and was always praised by their parents; around the age of thirteen he simply decided to change himself. “I was told I talked too much, so one day I decided I wouldn’t talk at all. I was amazed I could do it.” From then on he became addicted to the realisation that he had power over the way he was perceived. “One day I would hang out with the outcasts. The next I would go have lunch with the popular people, then the next it would be with the girls. Then I would spend the entire day in the library.” While he experimented with personas it was always in opposition to his defining brother – who, by the way, has worked for the same marketing non-profit for many years, has a wife and three children, and retains a strong accent. As R. grows older he sees himself exercising even more control over his image. He says he is now obsessed with his career and that he compartmentalises love into ‘different brain ages’ – i.e. it’s not so important to him any more.


My internet search led me in a direction I had not expected: I found a page advertizing the services of an ‘elite courtesan’ who claimed that she was “a social chameleon, that [sic] can blend into any sort of gathering without looking like the ‘obvious’ companion”. When I contacted her to ask if we could talk I received an immediate answer: “I know who you are and I love your work.” I was a bit mystified (I’d love to be able to say I’m so famous that even prostitutes know who I am, but I fear it’s not the case) but gamely emailed back and forth with her a few times, trying to set up a time to talk on the phone. Unfortunately, after that night she never responded again. I thought about trying to find other courtesans to interview but lost heart…although along the way I noted how little attention said ‘high-class’ escorts seem to pay to the grammar and spelling on their websites, which made me briefly dream of a new career advising them how to appear as if they were momentarily on furlough from the Ivy League…

The questions I had thought to ask mine revolved around her claim of being a chameleon: I wanted to know how differently she acted with clients and with her real friends. Was there a difference between clients? Did they actually care whether she appeared at ease skiing in Gstaad and walking the beaches of Turks and Caicos, as she claimed? Had she always monitored her behavior, or was it a product of her line of business? And, not having met her and so not being able to judge for myself, how successful was she at it? Her photographs (none of which show her face) do advertise beauty and class more effectively than those of the other sites I looked at, but her emails were disjointed; it wouldn’t surprise me if her responses that night had been chemically enhanced.

Prostitution (along with politics and acting) seems to be the perfect profession for a natural chameleon: I can be anything you want me to, baby. (Or, I’ll certainly vote the way you want me to, Ms. Constituent.) Fantasy situations require compliance, not the element of chaos introduced by someone else’s strong personality. How, then, are we surprised when politicians are so often found to lead secret lives? Their innate pliability leads them to weakness. Someone like John Edwards, who appears to be able to connect with people from every walk of life, must find it difficult to refuse to connect.


So where do I fit on this spectrum? Where do you? If you’re curious, take this test. Although I began my research thinking I was a chameleon, I’m now not surprised to find that I’m neither a high nor a low self-monitor: I scored 64 out of 100 (100 being high). There are certainly things I do that could be considered chameleonic (i.e. it would cause me physical pain to walk around Paris in sweatpants and white tennis shoes), but apparently that’s not uncommon.

Helene Deutsch, a psycho-analyst working in the 1930s, described an ‘as-if’ personality, whose fragile sense of themselves proscribed a need to win approval from others. This is emphatically not the way I operate. I’ll admit that I do enjoy being liked, but only if I care about the person’s opinion. There are a fair number of people I dislike on sight, and I am usually polite to them but make little effort to get them to like me. When I asked R. how he deals with people he doesn’t care about, his attitude was different: “I’m always acting.” Those people might be useful to him at some point.

I’m generally more concerned with finding out what is interesting about people; the way I do that is to subconsciously express the parts of my personality that are more similar to theirs to make them feel comfortable. I do not, however, feel that I ever abandon my core beliefs and principles or even my general persona.

Perhaps one reason I like to dress appropriately in Paris is to fit in, but more importantly when I’m there I’m reminded of how wonderful physical beauty can be  — whereas in California I tend not to dress well because no one seems to care. I think the reality is that I’m a bit lazy, so I use other people’s perceptions to remind me how I would ultimately prefer to behave. When I meet someone who fires all my neurons my use of language immediately grows more intelligent and creative, which is how I wish it would be all the time.

I found a description in M. Verkuyten’s ‘The Social Psychology of Ethnic Identity’ that seems more nuanced and therefore more appropriate for people like me:

‘The pastiche personality is a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation.’ However, this does not have to imply that people do not develop a particular structured sense of who they are. Variation in self-description and self-presentation does not necessarily imply an equally flexible self-concept. One can have a relatively stable sense of oneself and still describe oneself in flexible and context-sensitive ways. Self-understandings are invested with cognitive and emotional meanings, in which particularly the latter can be important.

I grew up in constantly-changing, highly-varied environments: a child of hermetic professors, I went to a pleasant nerd school in hippie-central California but spent vacations in Scotland with hilariously sarcastic and sociable family. I was sent to boarding school in Connecticut at 13 to learn about the wilds of Society, then to France for a year at 15, then to Manhattan for college… and so on. What happened was that at first, as a sensitive adolescent, I needed to fit in to survive.

But as I grew up things changed: I lost the need for widespread approval, but couldn’t take back the knowledge of how interesting and entertaining different situations could be. I like swanky martini bars and drinking a PBR in a dive. I can’t imagine limiting myself to either skiing in Gstaad or making vegan burgers in a hostel kitchen with a guy who lives in his van. Anecdotal evidence from friends who occupy a similar niche in the social world suggests that their psyches matured in the same way: they started out feeling a primal need to survive, but then grew to enjoy the variety.

By the way, a word about chameleons – the scaly little buggers, not their human counterparts: recent studies have shown that instead of changing color in order to camouflage themselves, chameleons do it to communicate, very often in order to stand out. So those of us in the middle of the self-monitoring spectrum may be the true chameleons after all.

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