Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Identity - the five senses and external assumptions

As I've been pondering identity I keep coming back to internal vs external measures of who we are. We can define ourselves by internal measures or be defined by external ones. While ultimately I believe our internal definition carries more weight and power, as well as influence over those external assumptions, we are all labeled by various factors over which we have little control. Let's start there, with how we're identified on the outside. This also touches on cultural identity labels that we can't help but internalize.

When someone looks at you they may make some assumptions about you based on what they see, hear or smell.
  • Skin color
  • Sex
  • How you're dressed
  • How you look at them
  • The tone of your voice
  • The pace of your speech
  • Your accent
  • Your scent - good or bad, innocuous or overwhelming
Writers and those in the business of shaping identities know this well. They shape a reader's initial perception of a character by describing them as ragged or well-dressed, a slow, honeyed-drawl or the clipped tones of a school marm. You probably make assumptions about someone's identity by sensory input too, based on cultural assumptions. We all do. After all, a black man is more likely to have trouble flagging down a cab than a white one.

I know that when I dress well I am treated differently than when I wear jeans and t-shirt. Is this because I feel better about myself, I am telling myself I am worth a little fuss, and so project myself differently or because our culture responds differently to a woman in a dress? Equally, I know I shy back from someone wearing heavy perfume and may not take the time to get past my initial flinch of "Ugh, so-and-so smells too much. How inconsiderate." I read inconsideration into their identity when really, they probably just love their perfume and forget that others may not.

Another way to think about this is to consider what identity you project by your dress, your carriage, your cologne, your movements. Who do you want people to think you are? What would happen if you were to change some of your identity flags? How would people react? What if you decided the flags you can't change don't matter so much and you challenged assumptions people made about you based on them? What then? What if you decided to tell a different story? To what degree are the assumptions about our identities fixed by the outside world?

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Very interesting blog! OzSomeNurse (SwapBot)

  2. I've been thinking about this a bit this year. As a gag gift, Christian bought me a leopard print steering wheel cover. I had just gotten my nails done and was sitting in my car wearing mascara and lip gloss. Glancing over from the passenger seat, Christian could not get over the scene. "If I didn't know you, I would assume you were a completely different person."


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