This piece was adapted from my latest book The Laws of Human Nature.
“You appeared to read a good deal upon her which was quite invisible to me.” “Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important. I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace.” — Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Watson, A case of Identity, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In general the word “role-playing” has negative connotations. We contrast it with authenticity. A person who is truly authentic doesn’t need to play a role in life, we think, but can simply be him– or herself. This concept has value in friendships and in our intimate relationships, where we can hopefully drop the masks we wear and feel comfortable in displaying our unique qualities. But in our professional life it is much more complicated. When it comes to a specific job or role to play in society, we have expectations about what is professional. We would be made to feel uncomfortable if our airline pilot suddenly started to act like a car salesman, or a mechanic like a therapist, or a professor like a rock musician. If such people acted completely like themselves, dropping their masks and refusing to play the role, we would question their competence.
A politician or public figure whom we see as more authentic than others is generally better at projecting such a quality. They know that appearing humble, or discussing their private life, or telling an anecdote that reveals some vulnerability will have the “authentic” effect. We are not seeing them as they are in the privacy of their home. Life in the public sphere means wearing a mask, and sometimes some people wear the mask of “authenticity.” Even the hipster or the rebel is playing a role, with prescribed poses and tattoos. They do not suddenly have the freedom to wear a business suit, because others in their circle would begin to question their sincerity, which depends on displaying the right appearances. People have more freedom to bring more of their personal qualities into the role they play once they have established themselves and their competence is no longer in question. But this is always within limits.
Consciously or unconsciously most of us adhere to what is expected of our role because we realize our social success depends on this. Some may refuse to play this game, but in the end they are marginalized and forced to play the outsider role, with limited options and decreasing freedom as they get older. In general, it is best to simply accept this dynamic and derive some pleasure from it. You are not only aware of the proper appearances you must present, but you know how to shape them for maximum effect. You can then transform yourself into a superior actor on the stage of life and enjoy your moment in the limelight.
The following are some basics in the art of impression management:
1. Master the nonverbal cues.
In certain settings, when people want to get a fix on who we are, they pay greater attention to the nonverbal cues we emit. This could be in a job interview, a group meeting, or a public appearance. Aware of this, smart social performers will know how to control these cues to some degree and consciously emit the signs that are suitable and positive. They know how to seem likable, flash genuine smiles, use welcoming body language, and mirror the people they deal with. They know the dominance cues and how to radiate confidence. They know how certain looks are more expressive than words, in expressing disdain or attraction. In general, you want to be aware of your nonverbal style so you can consciously alter certain aspects for better effect.
2. Be a method actor.
In method acting you train yourself to be able to display the proper emotions on command. You feel sad when your part calls for it by recalling your own experiences that caused such emotions, or if necessary by simply imagining such experiences. The point is that you have control. In real life it is not possible to train ourselves to such a degree, but if you have no control, if you are continually emoting whatever comes to you in the moment, you will subtly signal weakness and an overall lack of self–mastery. Learn how to consciously put yourself in the right emotional mood by imagining how and why you should feel the emotion suitable to the occasion or performance you are about to give. Surrender to the feeling for the moment so that the face and body is naturally animated. Sometimes by actually making yourself smile or frown, you will experience some of the emotions that go with them. Just as important, train yourself to return to a more neutral expression at a natural moment, careful to not go too far with your emoting.
3. Adapt to your audience.
Although you conform to certain parameters set by the role you play, you must be flexible. A master performer like Bill Clinton never lost sight of the fact that as president he had to project confidence and power, but if he was speaking to a group of autoworkers he would adjust his accent and his words to fit the audience, and do the same for a group of executives. Know your audience and shape your nonverbal cues to their style and taste.
4. Create the proper first impression.
It has been demonstrated how much people tend to judge based on first impressions and the difficulties they have in reassessing these judgments. Knowing this, you must give extra attention to your first appearance before an individual or group. In general it is best to tone down your nonverbal cues and present a more neutral front. Too much excitement will signal insecurity and might make people suspicious. A relaxed smile, however, and looking people in the eye in these first encounters can do wonders for lowering people’s natural resistance.
5. Use dramatic effects.
This mostly involves mastering the art of presence/absence. If you are too present, if people see you too often, or can predict exactly what you will do next, they will quickly grow bored with you. You must know how to selectively absent yourself, to regulate how often and when you appear before others, making them want to see more of you, not less. Cloak yourself in some mystery, displaying some subtly contradictory qualities. People don’t need to know everything about you. Learn to withhold information. In general, make your appearances and your behavior less predictable.
6. Project saintly qualities.
No matter what historical period we are living through, there are always certain traits that are seen as positive and that you must know how to display. For instance, the appearance of saintliness never goes out of fashion. Appearing saintly today is certainly different in content from the 16th century, but the pose is the same — you embody what is considered good and above reproach. In the modern world, this means showing yourself as progressive, supremely tolerant, and open-minded. You will want to be seen giving generously to certain causes and supporting them in social media. Projecting sincerity and honesty always plays well. A few public confessions of your weaknesses and vulnerabilities will do the trick. For some reason people see signs of humility as authentic, even though people might very well be simulating them. Learn how to occasionally lower your head and appear humble. If dirty work must be done, get others to do it. Your hands are clean. Never overtly play the Machiavellian leader — that only works well on television. Use the appropriate dominance cues to make people think you are powerful, even before you reach the heights. You want to seem like you were destined for success, a mystical effect that always works.
Realize the following: the word personality comes from the Latin persona, which means mask. In the public we all wear masks, and this has a positive function. If we displayed exactly who we are and spoke our minds truthfully we would offend almost everyone and reveal qualities that are best concealed. Having a persona, playing a role well actually protects us from people looking too closely at us, with all of the insecurities that would churn up. In fact, the better you play your role, the more power you will accrue, and with power you will have the freedom to express more of your peculiarities. If you take this far enough the persona you present will match many of your unique characteristics, but always heightened for effect.