I had been wondering which came first, the role one plays on a stage, or the role one plays in a family, a team or an organisation. It sounded like the stage came first, because the verb ‘play’ with things that are unserious and fun and for their own sake, whereas the roles people ‘play’ as parents and as security guards seem like the very definition of serious.
A search of the Etymonline portal suggested that indeed the stage was where the term started and that the ‘rôle’ is a derivative of the ‘roll’ of script that the French acteur would have been given with their lines and stage directions around 1600. So little did you know that roll of paper on your bathroom wall isn’t just a homophone of your role as sweeper-keeper in your weekly five-a-side match, but close siblings. You have to love how those metaphors linking our social constructs to the physical world wash up in everyday speech. It was something beloved and dearly missed Belfast artist Patrick Saunders used speak about when he explained how he translated complex information into cartoons.
While we anglophones have gone on to derive roleplay and role models, the French deploy rôle in some interesting phrases. If I tell you that “Vous avez le beau rôle”, this translates literally to “you have the good role”, but what I mean to say is that you have it easy. Meanwhile, if “je me donne le beau rôle”, i.e. if I “give myself the good role”, this means I am showing myself in a favourable light. I like this one, as it returns from the figurative back to the root of the metaphor, namely performance. A lot of what we do, whether it’s writing a job application, putting on our telephone voice or offering a firm handshake, is about ‘giving ourselves the good role’- assigning ourselves. We’re acting as version of ourselves. The language around acting and performance give us some clues as to how this might be tough on us. Inhabiting the role, owning the character, embodying the role, allowing the character to take over; all these combine into a convincing screen or stage portrayal. But what if that character is Public You? What if the audience is a significant number of the people in your life, or even yourself?
I got into analysing roles through some accidental introspection. In the second year of my Master’s, I took a course in counselling skills. One particular week, a conversation about work stress broke out after two people had done a video in the standard format where one person counsels the other, in this case about a workplace dilemma. I found myself wondering once again why I hadn’t chosen something more mainstream as the subject of my own session the previous week, which I had spent moaning about a minor dispute with flatmates.
My mind wandered on and wondered about the topic. If asked, how would I describe the various stresses and delights of my job working in a service providing support to to adults with intellectual disabilities living in the community? I thought instantly of the two young adults, one young man and one young woman, to whom I’d been assigned as “Keyworker”. Both had had rough years for different reasons. At the same time, their difficulties have been juxtaposed to a series of great achievements in their respective journeys to greater maturity and independence. If asked, I decided I’d say that the undulation between these moments of elation and despondency were at the route of the vaguely sea-sick feeling I had developed from my involvement to date.
Hang on! Why would that be my answer? Surely that’s the answer to a different question- “how are your two Key Clients progressing towards their personal outcomes?”. I’d count myself among the “work to live” half of the population, the half that says work isn’t who I am. So when did these events in the lives of other people come to help configure my well-being? Well, this was, after all, one of my key roles. As far as the organisation was concerned, each person in their care needed someone to fulfil the Keyworker role, so that there was a central point of contact for the various people involved in their life. I kept musing on the word. Where did we get this powerful idea of playing out roles, as if in some great production? My particular problems, I decided after a few afternoons’ scribbling, were that, one, I wasn’t sure how to set boundaries around my professional and personal lives, and two, I wasn’t sure whose expectations should most shape my role, the organisation’s, my colleagues’, or the people themselves receiving our services.
This turned out to be a useful thought which I turned into a survey of fellow keyworkers and ultimately into a dissertation. A few years later, I dug myself out of the trench in which I’d been writing up my PhD and went to a house party. I got chatting about to a friend about my topic, peer pressure and adolescent drug use. My friend told me “you’re not who you think you are, you’re not who other people think you are, you’re who you think other people think you are.” Walking home, I repeated the line until I felt dizzy. When I got in, I considered rewriting a whole chapter and linking my old results from my Master’s under the loose theme of “Great Expectations: Our Grand Performance in the Hall of Mirrors”.
After that, I started to see the same theme everywhere. People’s social posts and public photographs seemed to be in service of a grand narrative of themselves. Seminars about Erving Goffman and the ideas of ‘social dramaturgy’ and the presentation of the self. Having set up a social media account for work, I started to notice my brain condensing thoughts into one-line soundbites of roughly haiku length. At gigs, I became aware that the band aren’t the only ones performing: when the fake finish before the encore happens, a few heads look around and try to start a chant. Why? It’s what the performer expects? It’s what will make this night more memorable for them than the other 86 nights on this tour? Maybe it’s for each other, so we can all feel like we were part of something special and made it special. And yet, few want to be the first one chanting all on their lonesome. Almost as few are happy to be among the first joiner-inners, though after that everyone’s happy to pile on.
I’ve even called off searches for missing items because it just wasn’t a good look, head down examining the curb like a creep. But what’s a good look and who says and who’s even looking? Back to the narrative idea, is my every public action now augmented by an idea of how people, friends, strangers, might view it and whether that perspective coheres with “brand Me”?
These are the inevitable woes of living in the Spindustrial Revolution. By the day, more time and energy seem to be put into sculpting narrative on how things are. This has become the ultimate all-conquering regime of perception. No matter how page-thin the substance, there’s a book’s worth of talking it up to be done. The movement is not without its ideologues. Marketing is good for you. Feeling better about things emits no carbon, apparently https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXneozZwJR0 . Who are we talking to? Who are we trying to convince and of what? Is feeling better about things better than pursuing and knowing truth?
So there you have it kids, stay in school long enough, daydream for long enough in enough classes and sure enough, like the Shakespearian monkey typists, a useful thought will eventually form. Hmm, Shakespearian monkey typists. At the risk of going meta, that’s probably me trying to be funny, to take the edge off some of the preceding earnestness. I’ll admit that I often fixate on the role of technology in both amplifying majoritarian norms and turning life itself into one long stop-motion performance, the object of which is to seem both normal and sufficiently unusual to be interesting. Of course it’s doing some good, and it’s great that you can be an ocean apart from your son’s regatta and still watch it live via a shaky feed from someone’s bicycle helmet. But moreover, none of this is truly modern. Shakespeare wrote, on some put-upon actor’s roll of script, that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”. That was in 1599. Maybe that’s just as we like it.