Are you a social chameleon?
Let’s take a look at some of the traits of this personality type and find out – there are more of them (us!) than you might think.
The key characteristic of the social chameleon, just like their reptilian color-changing counterpart, is an ability to blend seamlessly into any social environment.
They can be the life and soul of the party or be quiet and reserved; they pay close attention to social cues and will mimic the behavior of others.
This social flexibility is often a very useful skill, with its psychological roots in our human need to feel socially included.
That said, there are those who set out with the precise intention to mold and re-invent themselves as a particular situation dictates.
They can swing effortlessly from easy sociability to quiet contemplation, as the situation demands.
Such adaptability makes them skilled at lying, but they’re also masters of soothing ruffled feathers when social situations go awry.
These are the true ‘operators’ that we often observe, possibly with admiration, but maybe also with slight disdain.
The interesting thing is that, if we’re susceptible to this type of personality shape-shifting, it’s so natural and unconscious that we often don’t even know we’re doing it.
And, for good or ill, there’s more than a little of this type of behavior in the majority of people.
How many times have you been talking to someone with an accent and unintentionally found yourself mimicking their distinctive twang?
Or perhaps you’ve caught yourself unconsciously copying the body language of someone you’re talking to?
What’s The Psychology?
Ultimately, it comes down to psychology and one theory behind our natural tendency to mimic other people’s behavior is that it can encourage them to feel positively about us.
And most of we humans like to be liked, right?
A revealing psychological study set out to explore whether people automatically mimic others, even people whom they’ve never met before.
The 78 subjects chatted with an ‘insider’ – a stranger – who’d been primed to smile, touch their faces, and waggle their feet during the encounter.
Results showed that the majority of subjects unconsciously mimicked the foot waggling and face touching.
The second question the study set out to answer is whether mimicry increased liking.
For this exercise, the subjects discussed random pictures with the insiders.
Some of the insiders had been told to mimic the subject’s body language, while some had been told not to.
When asked afterwards how they felt about the interaction, the subjects who experienced the mimicry rated it as more enjoyable than those who hadn’t.
With these results in mind, might we all benefit from consciously increasing our mimicry?
Should we all become more chameleon-like in our behavior?
Might this be the thing which will be the key to success at work or in our romantic life?
Because a key part of the chameleon effect is that we don’t realize that we’re doing it.
Any conscious attempt to copy others’ body language is unlikely to have the effect we’re aiming for.
How To Identify A Social Chameleon
As Dr Mark Snyder, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota, puts it, a social chameleon tries “to be the right person in the right place at the right time.”
They’re minutely and intuitively attuned to the way others respond to them and constantly adapt their own behavior when they feel they’re not creating the right impression.
Dr Snyder goes on to quote the British poet W.H. Auden, who was honest enough to admit that the reality of his own persona was “very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.”
According to Dr Snyder, social chameleons – ‘high self-monitors’ as he calls them – tend to:
– pay careful attention to social cues, scrutinizing others with keenness so as to know what is expected of them before making a response.
– try to be as others expect them to be, in order to get along and to be liked. For example, they try to make people they dislike think they are friendly with them.
– use their social abilities to mold their appearance as disparate situations demand, so that, as some put it, “With different people I act like a very different person.”
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Can You Trust A Social Chameleon?
On the whole, these traits could be seen as largely positive and useful, especially in commercial settings.
But research suggests that a person who is highly adept at molding themselves into different personas may pay the price in his/her intimate relationships.
While they may be highly successful at making a good impression in social interactions with strangers or in business situations, they tend to struggle in terms of friendships and romance.
Such close ties are based on trust and it’s understandably hard to trust someone whose personality is so fluid and unpredictable.
Spare a thought, though, for the inflexible folk at the other extreme, who’re unable to adjust their own behavior to fit in with others, have a whole set of different problems.
Their rigidity and lack of empathy can cost them dearly in social terms.
Thankfully, most of us sit somewhere between these opposite poles.
Dr Snyder’s research revealed that around 40% of people tend toward adapting their behavior to suit different situations – the chameleon approach.
The remaining 60% are less governed by this urge to impress at all costs.
He says that most people function around the middle range, varying their style according to different social or professional contexts.
Opposites Don’t Attract
You might suppose that a social chameleon would have the ability to get on with anyone, with their fluid persona… but you’d be wrong when it comes to their polar opposites.
William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas, studied people from opposite ends of the scale, to assess their mutual compatibility.
His study revealed that two people at the same end of the spectrum – high or low – got along just fine, whereas mixed pairs found no common ground.
Dr Icke explained:
‘the lows are like John Wayne, fairly taciturn and just the same no matter where they are. The highs are like Woody Allen’s Zelig, madly trying to fit in with whomever they are with. But the lows don’t give the highs enough cues to know how they should try to be.”
The ‘Professional’ Chameleon
Interestingly, many people tend to be more chameleon-like in a work environment, where they’re highly attuned to the need to impress in their desire for success.
The same people, however, remain more true to themselves when they’re at home, where there’s no need to be all things to all people at all times.
And, while we’re on the subject of work, it’s no surprise that certain professions attract people who are instinctively able to adjust their persona to suit whatever situation they face.
The most obvious, of course, is acting, but social chameleons also excel in the political arena, in diplomatic circles, and in any sales-related occupation.
They also make cracking prosecution attorneys for obvious reasons. In roles like these, the chameleon can function at the highest level.
It’s Not All Negative
Let’s not be too negative about the social chameleon, since the capacity to empathize, to put oneself in another person’s shoes, is a necessary and praiseworthy human quality.
The world would be a poorer place without it.
It’s just when it’s taken to extremes that this behavior leads to a breakdown of trust and impacts relationships.
Most of us, after all, prefer to interact with people who are true to themselves and the committed social shape-shifter is anything but that.
Like most things, it’s all about degree and clearly there are those who are at different ends of the behavior spectrum, from the ultimate operators to their polar opposites who can’t adapt at all.
That leaves most of us in the middle, adapting the way we behave intuitively as required to smooth along our interactions with friends, family, and work colleagues.
We can be chameleon-like when the situation demands, but at the same time remain true to ourselves.