The Chameleon or the Cat?

When in Rome, be a Roman or always be yourself?


Recently I was visiting with a girlfriend and the Pope, and she was telling him the dirtiest joke ever told. Now the Pope and I were sitting there with our cheeks bright red, but my friend … she couldn’t have been more in her element.

My friend, she is herself wherever she is; she never changes no matter what. I have always wished I was more like her.

She amazes me with her inexplicable resilience against social pressure. She reminds me of a cat. When her position is threatened, she turns sideways, raises her fur and becomes more of herself.

I, on the other hand, attempt to be a  in new situations. Until I feel comfortable with people, I pretend —out of fear of being reprimanded or humiliated — to go along with whatever they feel strongly about. I follow the masses. I’m always checking to reassure myself that I am blending in.

For example there is a sheet at my son’s school to sign in the time you drop off and pick up your kids. I write the exact time: 8:58, 8:52, 9:03.

OK, sometimes I write 9:01 when it is really 9:04.

Then the other day I happened to glance at someone else’s entries (cheating?) and it said: 9:00, 9:00, 9:00.

Oh crap, I thought. You are supposed to round upI am doing it wrong! AHHH humiliated.

It took me a month (it always does) before it dawned on me that it is OK to fill out the sheet however I want to. But now I hear some patriarchal voice in my head that is telling me I am doing it wrong. So I’ve changed the way I sign in … to the 5’s: 8:55, 9:00, 8:50. I can’t help it. I just want to blend in.

So back to my friend and the Pope and the dirtiest joke ever told: I didn’t think it was funny. I felt uncomfortable and I don’t believe the Pope is a better man now that he has heard it.

I certainly don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, so why do I admire my friend so much?

It made me think about times that I had tried to push the envelope, the times that I have ignored others' body language telling me that I was venturing past their comfort levels. Has whatever I was saying ever been worth the awkwardness?

OK, sometimes there is a high from causing people to shift in their seats, to look at their feet. A power in being able to turn their cheeks red. This high, it can be addictive for some. And life would be so much less interesting if we didn’t have John Waters making us vomit into our "pink phlegmingo" barf bags. But in everyday life, is it worth it?

I always felt bad about not being myself no matter what, but I am starting to appreciate the conscientiousness that comes from respecting other people’s comfort levels.

(Now I still like to gross out my brother by talking about inappropriate sex stuff — just to annoy them — but for other people, who are not bound by genetic law to love me, I should appreciate my willingness to concede to their comfort level rather than criticizing myself for being weak or soft of character.)

In movies, on TV, in books we worship those who have stood alone, who have gone against the masses, who are themselves no matter what. We admire the cat. But in real life you need chameleons to get things done. Successful people are more often adaptable than not. We all can’t be Oprah.

So what do we teach our children? (Most likely falsely assuming that we have any influence over them in this area at all.) I always thought you tell kids to be themselves. Stand up for what you believe in. But I have always lived: fly under the radar, go along, jump if the others jump.

I had always felt bad about not standing up for myself. I don’t want my kids to feel bad if they are naturally a chameleon like me. Do I still teach them to be themselves no matter what or do I teach them to be a Roman when they are in Rome?

So which one: the chameleon or the cat?

Well … you tell me what you think first, and then I’ll tell you.  


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