… most people are natural actors. It’s how we develop a sense of self, and how we maintain our roles in families and social and professional circles. Even the word “role” points to performance. I suppose you can imagine a person raised by wolves who, you argue, is NOT an actor, but I’d argue back that wolves live in social hierarchies and have rules, and whoever lives among wolves as a wolf will still have to perform status, if nothing else.
Acting is something you already do, whether you’re aware of it or not. Let me explain what I mean. Humans are social creatures. Human society is structured through rituals and symbols. We are, as Kenneth Burke once said, the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal. We use symbolic interaction to communicate meaning. Symbols (language, gestures and ways of moving, facial expressions, objects and images, structures, sounds and combinations of sounds)—the meanings of these are linked to their symbolic power: our experiences of human social reality and our place in it are mediated by symbols. People make, use and misuse symbols to survive in a social environment, to create families, groups, teams, cultures and subcultures, to create or acquire and maintain power.
In a human hierarchy created and sustained through symbolic interaction, we are hyper-alert to the minutest of signs given off by others, particularly those whose survival depends upon us and whose survival reflects back upon our own competence, our own roles and our ability to fulfill them (I am a good mother whose child is healthy and cared for; I am a good father who provides for my family; I am a good babysitter who can be trusted).
We are hyper-alert to the signs given off, in our presence, by those upon whose favor our own survival and success may rest. I pay particular attention to the nuances of my boss’s communication when I am in her presence—does she avoid conversation? Laugh at my jokes? Appear to like me? Appear indifferent?
We may be hyper-alert to someone who might give or withhold affection, since affection is a strong motivator: was Mom a little reserved on the phone? Does she still love me?
We may be hyper-alert to someone other than a parent with whom we share a blood bond reinforced by affection and by traditional role expectations, such as a younger sibling.
We are less hyper-alert to to the signs given off by those, such as grandparents, who hold no power over us and whose affection for us does not determine our sense of self-worth, although if the grandparent is very wealthy and we stand to inherit a significant sum when they die, we may be more hyper-alert to the signs of affection or disapproval that the grandparent gives off, and act differently in response.
We are less alert with those with whom we share the same amount of power, and for whom we hold little or no responsibility.
We are not alert at all to those with less power or status than we hold ourselves and for whom we are not responsible, since it does not matter to us whether they like us or not, or whether they are happy, unhappy, alive or dead. (This is one reason that those who occupy a low status might be compelled to force themselves into view, to make others take notice—because others have communicated that they, the low-status persons, are not worth bothering about. That can be enraging in some circumstances, such as when power, possession of resources and health are flaunted in the face of lack and suffering). Sometimes, it’s true, self-interest (that is, for example, the alleviation of guilt, the promise of heaven or the pleasant sense of purpose and worth that altruism feeds) overcomes self-absorption and makes us care about the weaker, poorer, sicker and less fortunate.
Being alert to the signs given off by others, we respond to those signs accordingly. We “act” a certain way in order to elicit approval, to threaten, to communicate deference, to demonstrate affiliation or superiority. We act dismissively, we act friendly, we act huffy or aloof, we act like we are enjoying ourselves. We act. What we “act like” is our performance for others.