Acting is part of life. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we spent a significant portion of our day in one performance or another. Life demands all of us to be a bit of an actor, and most people are remarkably adept at this.
We perform in front of our spouses and friends. We act out specific roles and personas at work. We are definitely performers when giving speeches or presentations, regardless of their scale or importance. Sometimes the act is casual or subtle. Sometimes it is a full on display worthy of an Oscar award.
In my work, I’ll use the term “acting” a couple of ways. One of these is the way most people would define it: participating in a scripted or improvised play, film, or similar performance. Sometimes I’ll call people who do this kind of acting dramatists, just to avoid ambiguity (a rather old-fashioned term, I know. But it’s useful, and I am a Jane Austin fan).
The other way I define acting is: the conscious control of our externally projected emotions in order to convey a specific message for a specific purpose.*
This I’ll also call social acting. Sometimes we do this when we want to show an emotion externally that is different or conflicting with what we’re actually feeling. We might also do this to amplify our emotions for greater effect, or even if we’re trying to convince ourselves of something that we don’t yet quite believe. What we do on the outside, after all, has an effect on what’s going on inside our own heads.
When clients or workshop participants tell me that they’re “not an actor,” I usually dismiss the comment. It simply isn’t true. What the person actually means is that they’re not a dramatist. The majority of people are very adept social actors. We have to be – it’s part of getting along in human society. Social acting lets us communicate clearly, get along, keep the peace, motivate others, do what needs to be done in a different situations. People who truly, truly “can’t act” also usually can’t have normal relationships, whether social, romantic, or work-related.
So when are we social actors? Here are a few scenarios:
- A spouse approves of a new living room suite he doesn’t actually like. His partner has fallen in love with it, and that person’s happiness matters more to him than the fact that he hates harvest orange upholstry.
- An employee nods enthusiastically and gives her support to what she thinks is a terrible management decision, because she needs her boss to think that she’s “on board with management decisions.”
- A person refrains from rolling her eyes while being lectured by her friend about a new crackpot nutrition fad because it’s easier to keep the peace than get into another argument about food.
- A parent calmly comforts his child, saying that everything will be alright, even though he himself is afraid that it won’t be.
- A speaker gives his audience a dazzling, confident smile despite his jangling nerves and mounting nausea.
- A person tries imitating the physical mannerisms of her role model in order to project some of her idol’s charisma.
These performances aren’t necessairly done to be duplicitous. Social acting is as likely to be an honest act as a dishonest one. Sometimes we are social actors for the benefit of others, sometimes for our own benefit. Have you ever seen someone try to get over a phobia? When someone refrains from screaming or gagging while petting their friend’s boa constrictor because they want to get over their fear of snakes, they’re engaging in an honest bit of acting for their own benefit.
This week, try taking note of the instances where you think you are doing a bit of social acting. You might be surprised at how prolific and accomplished an actor you are!
*In case you were wondering, yes I really do get this nerdy when I’m babbling about work. This is what happens when I get excited!