Public vs. Self: An Ethnographic Vignette on Perception

The YouTube channel A-Plus posted a video titled “You’re More Successful Than You Realize (A Social Experiment).” The people in the video were asked “How would you rate your success on a scale from 1–10?” The people then wrote down their numbers and held them up to the camera. Most people seemed sure that the number they were holding up was an accurate representation of their success. No one in the video gave themselves a perfect 10. When asked about why they chose the number that they wrote many people gave reasons like, “I haven’t achieved all the goals I set out to” or “I used to be successful, but then I gave it up for a family instead.” one woman even calls herself “mediocre.” It was apparent that the people were measuring their success based on material wealth or their careers.

It is a very complex question to ask someone if they think they are successful because there are a wide variety of factors that can influence the way people imagine their own success. It’s hard to put a number on the way you feel about yourself, because for a lot of people their sense of self-worth is entangled with the way they believe people perceive them. It’s like a two-way mirror, with you on one side and the whole world judging you from the other. Even if you do feel your successful you may not want to openly admit it for fear of appearing narcissistic. Americans are not known for their modesty, but will still judge you for not having any.

In the A-Plus video the family and friends of the people rating their success were brought in to give a second opinion. All of the friends and family gave a perfect 10 for how successful they thought their loved ones were. The reasons they listed were: intelligence, humor, energy, personality, and determination, a far cry from the reasons the people thought they were unsuccessful.

In The Spectral Wound the Bangladeshi women, who survived being raped, struggled with how to balance their pain and trauma with the public perception of them as war heroines. They weren’t allowed to grieve openly because of the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence. Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to be the one to talk about it. This open secret affected the way that they interacted with their family, communities, and the way that they coped with the trauma. A lot of women held their pain inside, after being asked to expose their stories and pain in public. Mookherjee talks about how the stories of the birangonas was appropriated to suit the nationalistic agenda of the government.

Open and exposed to public critique the women began to view their pain in a different way. Aware that other people are watching humans often perform behaviors align with how others feel they should. The same can be said for people imagining their success. Some people may measure their success based on their happiness, love, or friendships, it’s their spiritual wealth. But others, aware that they are being watched, measure their success using a set of material factors, that when it comes down to it really only measure how much stuff you have and your ability to acquire it.

When it comes down to it we can all be more or less successful than we appear to be, than we think we are, or how we are told we are; it all just depends on who is looking at us.