However, if these interpersonal abilities are not balanced by an astute sense of one’s own needs and feelings and how to fulfill them, they can lead to a hollow social success – a popularity won at the cost of one’s true satisfaction. Such is the argument of Mark Snyder, a University of Minnesota psychologist who has studied people whose social skills make them first-rate social chameleons, champions at making a good impression. Their psychological credo might well be a remark by W. H. Auden who said that his private image of himself “is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.” That trade-off can be made if social skills outstrip the ability to know and honor one’s own feelings: in order to be loved – or at least liked – the social chameleon will seem to be whatever those he is with seem to want. The sign that someone falls into this pattern, Snyder finds, is that they make an excellent impression, yet have few stable or satisfying intimate relationships. A more healthy pattern, of course, is to balance being true to oneself with social skills, using them with integrity.
Social chameleons, though, don’t mind in the least saying one thing and doing another, if that will win them social approval. They simply live with the discrepancy between their public face and their private reality. Helena Deutsch, a psychoanalyst, called such people the “as-if personality,” shifting personas with remarkable plasticity as they pick up signals from those around them. “For some people,” Snyder told me, “the public and private person meshes well, while for others there seems to be only a kaleidoscope of changing appearances. They are like Woody Allen’s character Zelig, madly trying to fit in with whomever they are with.”
Such people try to scan someone for a hint as to what is wanted from them before they make a response, rather than simply saying what they truly feel. To get along and be liked, they are willing to make people they dislike think they are friendly with them. And they use their social abilities to mold their actions as disparate social situations demand, so that they may act like very different people depending on whom they are with, swinging from bubbly sociability, say, to reserved withdrawal. To be sure, to the extent that these traits lead to effective impression management, they are highly prized in certain professions, notably acting, trial law, sales, diplomacy, and politics.
Another, perhaps more crucial kind of self-monitoring seems to make the difference between those who end up as anchorless social chameleons, trying to impress everyone, and those who can use their social polish more in keeping with their true feelings. That is the capacity to be true, as the saying has it, “to thine own self,” which allows acting in accord with one’s deepest feelings and values no matter what the social consequences. Such emotional integrity could well lead to, say, deliberately provoking a confrontation in order to cut through duplicity or denial – a clearing of the air that a social chameleon would never attempt.