I heard an interesting term on the radio this morning: High Self-Monitors. The label refers to people who pay attention to the way they are perceived by others, and try to modify their behavior in order to satisfy others’ expectations.
I was a High Self-Monitor as a kid; I was the one who hadn’t seen the latest movie, but who instinctively knew to hover in the group that was discussing the movie until I had absorbed enough to fake it. I didn’t always act on the monitoring intelligence – hence my inclusion in the “Normals” instead of the “Dragons” in junior high school – but I was always watching for what was cool.
The context of the radio piece was a study published in BusinessWeek ("Online dating as honest as real life") and on CNN.com ("Online dating liars: Why they do it"), showing that people who lie (in ‘minor’ ways) on on-line dating sites, such as by saying they “look like a model,” are more likely to be eager-to-please. Such people are called “high self-monitors,” and they are more likely to find a mate. As the newsreader put it, low self-monitors are more likely to be brutally honest, and alone.
They certainly had a point; even though I get upset when people dissemble in order to please me, I can’t ignore the fact that they are trying to make me happy with them, and that on some level this is a good thing.
I listened to the radio report with a parent’s ambivalence. I want my children to be high self-monitors so that they will fit in, but I also want them to have the confidence to chart their own paths, and do their own thing. I want my kids to follow the advice of Pirkei Avos and use public approval as a key way to gauge the morality of their decisions, but I also want my kids to be Mr. Plumbean in that '70s classic, The Big Orange Splot, doing what they feel is right rather than what they feel will help them fit in.
Of course, this is also a shul rabbi’s problem – on the one hand, a Rabbi wants to work with people, and that comes with a degree of wanting to please. On the other hand, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s classic observation - that rabbis who are universally approved aren’t doing their jobs – makes the point that a successful rabbi must buck the trend, too.
I expect that the answer is a Kohelesian גם מזה אל תנח ידיך, “Hold on to this, but do not let go of that.”
Be a High Self-Monitor, in the sense that we should train ourselves, and our kids, to pick up on social cues and be aware of how we will be perceived. At the same time, be a Low Self-Monitor in the sense that we should be willing to ditch that public opinion of which we are aware, when we feel it’s wrong.
Be a High Self-Monitor on issues of grave public consequence, taking public opinion into strong consideration. But be a Low Self-Monitor in deciding what music you like, what sort of art you like, in who you are inside.
And if someone lies to you in describing himself, don’t get upset. Remember: It’s just because he wants your approval.