Social chameleon-ism: Survival of the fittest schmoozer
By S. Amanda Ali
A short subway ride from the city centre to the suburbs can transform a person: from a student completing a degree to a child obeying parents’ rules, from a professional in a board room to a parent in a play room, from a pedestrian commuter to a car-oholic. Our surroundings influence us in such a way that we adjust our behaviour to assimilate and “fit in” with those around us. We do it because we want to be liked, because we seek acceptance, because social norms stipulate that certain behaviours are appropriate in certain settings.
Depending on the crowd, we draw on different aspects of our personalities and relate to others in different ways. Among co-workers we behave in a professional manner; cordial with everyone, friendly with some, but guarded at all times. Among friends we adjust the conversation accordingly from colloquial to contemplative to corporate depending on the group, be they highschool friends, weekend friends, university friends, work friends, or whatever friends. Among family we are more likely to let our guard down and show more than one version of ourselves, depending on our mood at a given time.
These changes in our behaviour make us social chameleons. Also described as impression management, self-monitoring, and social control, our ability to adapt to different social settings is truly a skill. As with any skill, some people are better than others, practice makes perfect, and extremes can be deleterious. Those who are exceptionally good at social “chameleon-ism” verge on sociopathic, while those who are particularly bad at it can be social outcasts. This ability to blend-in may be construed negatively: as having a poor sense of self, as needing the approval of others, as being a push-over. Conversely, it may be construed positively: as having the ability to acclimatize to different contexts, as being relatable and versatile, as being agreeable.
Now take an individual who is potentially already socially inept (see “Social Ineptitude,” Fall 2012 edition), immerse them in one small subject to the point of expertise, surround them with like-minded scientists, make them highly educated compared to the general population, and what do you get? An utterly one-dimensional graduate student with no hope of relating to those in the outside world.
Graduate school does not exactly provide exposure to diverse environments or personalities. Scientists are trained in a specific way of thinking for the specific goal of pursuing academia. But with more PhDs being trained than needed (see “PhDs: Training for Jobs that Don’t Exist”, Spring 2013 edition), there is increasing motivation for scientists to pursue relationships with clinicians, government, industry, and other sectors. Unless a scientist has the ability to interact with these different groups of people on a basic level, barriers are erected. Barriers to translation, to funding, to commercialization. Barriers to progress. Barriers to success.
Overcoming these barriers requires networking—the essence of which is well understood by the social chameleon. Genuine networking is facilitated by the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, comfortably, and find common ground. This creates a memorable interaction and causes both parties to leave feeling connected. The connection can be established over rare commonalities (like having both gone skydiving) or popular commonalities (like support for a sports team). The number of commonalities we identify in those initial interactions contributes to us liking a person, remembering them, and wanting to see them again.3 Whether for a professional opportunity, a romantic date, or a new friend, the dance is the same. This “schmooze” factor comes more naturally to the social chameleon with diverse experience to draw from, experience which makes them more relatable. Juxtapose this to a dry conversation with an awkward scientist and the problem is evident.
Today’s society places great value on our ability to network. No longer relevant is a deep-rooted friendship with your next-door-neighbour, instead the goal is to maximize your social network with Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, and so on. While the old adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” is truer than ever, the way in which we now get to “know” people has taken a turn towards superficiality. You meet a person, find a common interest, discuss it, and decide whether to exchange email addresses. Crucial to this equation is finding that common interest, feeling the “click”, establishing the connection—it’s what sets some interactions (and some graduate students) apart from others.
Hope for reform remains for the one-dimensional graduate student who chooses to pursue extracurricular activities, to participate in cultural events, to travel to exotic destinations. These activities serve to broaden perspectives, cultivate life experience, and enrich thinking. These activities provide basis for maintaining conversation with individuals outside of one’s typical network, simply because there is more chance to find common ground. A diversity of experiences both creates and strengthens the social chameleon by allowing them a worldliness that facilitates interaction with others.
Consider the hiring process and advantages enjoyed by social chameleons. Having recently sat on two very different hiring committees (one for a teaching assistant, the other for a director of a graduate program), there was one resounding commonality: when all candidates are equally accredited (with PhDs, for example), hiring committees look for unique and distinguishing accomplishments. Volunteer service? Triathlons? Business ventures? If taken too far, an applicant who gushes about their extracurricular activities can be seen as unfocused or lacking substance. If presented properly, these diverse experiences can set an applicant apart from the others by making them appear better rounded. If all candidates are equal, the one who started their own restaurant may be chosen; a hiring committee can interpret this to represent vision, creativity, and drive. In other words, hiring committees are looking for multidimensionality, and this is a typical characteristic of the social chameleon.
Overall, social chameleons appear to have a special competence in social contexts, and this affords them an advantage in network-based endeavours; but there are drawbacks to having multiple versions of the self. The mental effort that is required to keep the superficial-self malleable while maintaining the core-self fixed can be taxing if constantly demanded. Also arduous is orchestrating the intersection of different worlds (describing your thesis project to your family, or explaining your hang-over to your supervisor). Furthermore, if the superficial-selves conflict, it may cause questioning of the core-self, and confuse our true values. A classic example is presented by the collision of religious and secular beliefs. If the social chameleon subscribes to creationism among religious circles but evolution among scientific communities, they may find themselves in epistemological crisis.
Some people are better than others at harnessing their inner social chameleon. They have a healthy ability to strike up conversation and find commonalities with diverse groups of people while maintaining a clear sense of self. This ability can be developed and fortified by accumulating diverse experiences. The more exposure an individual has to different realms of life, the better their ability to schmooze with others and advance their goals, be they career, romantic, or otherwise. This experience is gained by venturing outside of one’s proverbial “box” and trying new things. In support of social chameleon-ism, Aristotle noted, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
1. Goleman D. ‘Social Chameleon’ May Pay Emotional Price. The New York Times. 1985.
2. Riggio R. Are You a Skilled Social Actor or a Social Chameleon? Psychology Today. 2012.
3. Morry MM. The attraction-similarity hypothesis among cross-sex friends: Relationship satisfaction, perceived similarities, and self-serving perceptions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2007 February 1, 2007;24(1):117-38.