Here’s ado to lock up honesty

We are always on stage aren’t we? Always actors in a changing play. I am elderly now, but still amazed at the parts I am expected to play. I was a doctor once -or is that a permanent role with permanent obligations?- so to some, there is still an expectation of lingering wisdom that I am hesitant to discard; to others, ignorant or more likely unimpressed by my former job, I am simply another old man struggling to remember the appropriate words to answer their questions. Still, that same man is usually smiling and polite to clerks in stores, but angry with drivers that honk their horns in frustration at his seemingly unhurried attempts to cross the road as the final seconds of the pedestrian light ticks down. That same man wears different clothes if he is invited to a friend’s house for dinner than if he’d met her at Starbucks for coffee.

I am a different person with strangers than with friends… but am I really? Is it a different me, or merely me in a different play? Is an actor actually another person in his various roles…? All of these are interesting questions to which I hadn’t really given much thought before.

What happens to the original person when he switches back and forth in these disparate situations -or is that an imponderable question? Are we -each of us- all, or none of them…? And what, exactly, constitutes a role anyway?

I assumed that these questions had very probably been investigated already, but because I had no idea of how to categorize such an infinitely varied subject, it was only serendipity that led me to an essay by Arianna Falbo, at the time a PhD student in philosophy at Brown University in Rhode Island. I learned it was called cultural code-shifting.

‘This concerns how we adapt our overall manner of speaking, behaviour and appearance in response to a perceived change in our social environment. When we engage in cultural code-switching, we alter how we present ourselves to the world to fit specific expectations and standards.’ At times, these switches help us to fit in with our community and announce our affiliation with different groups; they help others to know where we belong -and, how to treat us, perhaps…

It is that latter reason that may be problematic, however. As Falbo points out, ‘while code-switching can be an effective means of integrating into an unfamiliar social environment where opportunities for social mobility reside, it often comes at a serious cost: ‘fitting in’ is a far cry from genuinely belonging. When one is forced to code-switch – to mask or suppress important aspects of their cultural identity and sense of self – the result is a form of oppressive self-silencing.’ For some, this amounts to a form of ‘cultural smothering’. ‘The pressures to code-switch in these circumstances put into sharp focus a tension between reconciling where one comes from – one’s core values, family, traditions, community and overall sense of self – with where one is aspiring to go.’

There is a chess term for a situation like this, I remember: Zugzwang –a situation in which the obligation to make a move –any move is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage. There is no good move, no ‘right’ thing to do. ‘[People] can conform to the dominant norms to gain better access to opportunities for social mobility or to shield themselves from potential harms. In so doing, they self-silence and smother aspects of their cultural identity. Or, one can refuse to code-switch… But, in refusing, one risks social exclusion and rejection.’ In this type of situation, either choice is a form of oppression. Prejudice.

I’ve always thought I believed in a societal cultural mosaic, a patchwork quilt that requires different customs, different colours, and unique ideas to form the whole. We would stagnate as a society if we weren’t exposed to new thoughts, different  ways of doing things, and fresh ways of being in the world. To require conformity is to smother identity -and even, perhaps, progress. But maybe I only came to this belief late in my life as my own leaves were yellowing and starting to drop; when I, myself, was diverging from the norm.

I suppose I should have known, all along though; I should have guessed. I was sitting in a rather dark corner of a coffee shop, just grateful that it was again available to me – at least, available because of my proof of vaccination QR code. At any rate, I was luxuriating in the opportunity to people watch again, when I noticed a dark-skinned woman with incredible braids in her hair standing in line waiting for the barista. Not only did I find her hair engaging, but she looked almost familiar in the way someone does who has aged almost beyond easy recognition; she was certainly still beautiful, still striking, but for whom a name didn’t surface. Of course, she was still wearing her mask, so there were few cues from her face.

I think she noticed me staring at her, though, because I could see her eyes twinkling in recognition as she walked over to my table.

“It’s G, isn’t it…?” she said, uncertain whether or not to sit with me, and even more uncertain whether it was okay to remove her mask.

I smiled and pointed at her mask, still embarrassed that I couldn’t remember her name even when she removed it. Then I pushed the other chair out for her. My mask was off, of course, and that had no doubt made it easier for her to recognize me, although my face too must have aged; even so, I was impressed with her remembering my name.

“I’m Claire,” she reminded me. “We both knew each other when we were Residents in training at the hospital.”

A cloud lifted. “You were in…” I searched briefly along the tattered bookcase in my head.”… Internal Medicine then, weren’t you?”

She nodded. “And you were in Obstetrics, right?”

I chuckled at the memory. “Forty years, in practice. I’m retired now, though… How about you -still in the thick of it?”

“Still in the thick of it, G,” she said, and sipped her coffee.

I shook my head as if I couldn’t believe seeing her again after so many years. “You still look… ravishing, Claire,” I said. “You’ve hardly changed at all, I don’t think…” I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t remember you having braids then, though,” I added, my eyes drinking in her face, her hair, her smile.

Her eyes began to twinkle again at the mention of her braids. “Well, actually, I was told not to wear my hair in braids by the program director… Not professional, he told me.”

I suppose I must have stared at her, because her smile grew even larger. “I only wore them once on the ward, actually…” She hesitated as if she had remembered something else but was deciding whether or not to tell me. “I never mentioned it, but you were the one who gave me the courage.”

I blinked at her in surprise. “Me…?”
She nodded. “It was the end of the sixties, remember? Everybody was a wannabe hippie and all the guys were wearing their hair long…” She glanced at my head and smiled. “Especially you -remember?”

I shrugged at the memory. I’d gone through a phase where I’d tried to force my curls into pony-tail, but found it too uncomfortable. And anyway, they always seemed to escape and dance around on my shoulders.

“Did the head of your department say anything to you about it…?” she added, her smile disappearing for a moment.

I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. “He only rolled his eyes when he saw me, I think…”

Her smile returned, but her eyes no longer twinkled at me. “We lived in different worlds didn’t we, G…?”

I’m not sure she why she used the past tense. We still do…

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