Everyday performance

Yesterday’s interesting encounter with “social street theatre” got me thinking — how much of our everyday, moment to moment experience of life is actually a kind of theatre? When people laugh, or act surprised, or share an moment in a social situation, how much of it is actually a performance of a laugh, or of a gesture of surprise, or of a “shared moment”?

We are such social creatures, interacting with other people day in and day out, that we might not actually notice when our behavior has slipped into performance. After all, our interactions over the course of a day are bound up in many rituals — saying good morning, going to get a coffee, ordering at a restaurant, queuing up for a movie.

In many social situations, too much spontaneity would actually break the social contract. If our dinner companion were to suddenly sing their order to the waiter in a loud opera buffa baritone, we might start to consider looking for other dinner companions. Similarly, we might not be happy if a coworker were to respond to our innocent “How are you doing?” with a detailed play-by-play of their recent gall bladder operation.

In this sense, all of our social interactions are a finely calibrated balance between the genuine and the performed. Being able to function in society is a matter of negotiating the path between — and having a good sense of where the curb is on either side.

3 thoughts on “Everyday performance”

  1. “All the world’s a stage”…or something like that?

    I was also thinking about your description of your encounter with the woman yesterday. You apparently had the presence of mind to play it cool and not acknowledge her strange behavior. However, you didn’t have a choice about having a role in her little play once she chose to approach you. You could have chosen to be irritated, frightened, or confused instead (or you could have reacted without thinking about it first). But even your nonchalance was a form of engagement. Its like a little “flash improv.”

  2. Yes, I see your point. We were each doing a performance. Things went in an unexpected direction because I probably wasn’t supposed to realize she was putting on a show, yet I chose to keep playing along. Knowing it was all fake, I was free to choose my character.

    Her performance was “Ohmygod, ‘Contagion’ isn’t just a movie!!”, and mine was “That’s nice. The train is that way.”

    It would be useful to always have the awareness to realize when somebody is putting us on. In an eccescopic future, perhaps there could be some sort of sign alerting us to such situations. Maybe a big rubber chicken floating over the other person’s head. 😉

  3. How does the computer-intermediary know to put the rubber chicken there?

    And what would your telepathic extraterrestrials have made of yesterday’s scene?

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