Excerpt

From Chapter 3, “Once Inside”:

A writer came up to me recently after I gave a talk and asked, “When you do these immersions, can you be yourself? ” Yes, I said. Yes, because who can you be besides yourself? I’d venture that fairly few people, even the most honest and forthright, present themselves exactly the same to everyone they meet during the day. I am somebody a little different to each of them. To my daughter, I’m Daddy. To some of my students, I’m “Professor”; to others, I’m “Ted.” To strangers emailing me for the first time, I’m sometimes “Mr. Conover.” To the policeman pulling me over for running a stop sign, I might be “Sir,” even if the respectful address is a prelude to giving me a ticket. I speak differently to my mother than to a cocktail waitress. And each of them, in turn, sees a different person when they look at me.

Are we “acting” when we speak differently to different people? The idea of inhabiting different roles as we pass through life was certainly familiar to William Shakespeare. His famous “all the world’s a stage” monologue considers how our roles in life’s drama change as we age: we go from helpless infant to whining schoolboy, then lover, then soldier, then smug and vain and, finally, incapacitated and helpless again.

The sociologist Erving Goffman applied the theater metaphor to our daily existence in his seminal book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Not only do we act out roles as we move through life, he suggested, but often we choose our stage, our props, and our costumes. We strive to make different impressions on different people and present ourselves to best advantage in different settings, all the while aware that others are taking our measure. Each person’s performance is her own, of course, but its contexts are situations with rules and expectations that we’ve all agreed upon: a classroom, a doctor’s office, a sporting event, a dinner party, all come with implicit scripts, ways we’re supposed to behave. Typically, the players are invested in having a successful performance, in maintaining decorum; he quotes Simone de Beauvoir on the crisis that ensues when accidents knock askew a mask: “Wine is spilled on her dress, a cigarette burns it; this marks the disappearance of the luxurious and festive creature who bore herself with smiling pride in the ballroom.”

When a researcher asks herself, Will I be able to pass?, she can thus be understood to be worrying about her incomplete knowledge of the rules and expectations of a particular drama. Preparation can be a partial cure, but since real life requires extemporaneous performance, it’s not enough.

So back to the question, Can I be myself? A better answer is probably, It’s best if you are. Because it’s difficult to be somebody you are not, especially over the long term. It’s difficult to lie, especially to lie a lot, and not get caught at it. It’s difficult to establish rapport, I think, if you do not exude a sense of authenticity, of feeling comfortable in your skin. When I am living like somebody else for a while, which is my version of undercover, I try to fit in not by adding false information about myself (like a fake backstory, which I’ll need to remember and which I might be tempted to elaborate on in a weak moment), but rather by subtracting—by not mentioning facts about myself which are inconvenient, which could give me away. It’s safer and to me it feels better.

For example: as a new correction officer, why shouldn’t I tell my colleagues that I’m married and have young kids? Doing so might help to explain why I look tired, why I’m not interested in working double shifts. Further, it might prompt fellow officers to tell me a bit about their families, and that’s all for the good. The same when I worked as a federal meat inspector in Schuyler, Nebraska. People were curious when I showed up in town solo, and those I became friendly with would ask about why I’d left the East Coast. My answers were all true: I grew up in Colorado, and had been missing this part of the country. You can get enough of New York City. I got tired of paying a small fortune for a small apartment. My son went off to college and I wasn’t tied to home anymore. My wife said she didn’t mind; I’ll probably see her before long.

Where it gets more complicated is when you meet somebody you like and start getting to know each other better. The meat inspector who trained me, Stan, knew I hadn’t qualified for the job by having experience, as he had, and deduced that I must have gone to college, the other way to get an inspector job. He asked me that very question one day on the “heads” line, during the five- or six-second pause we had between cutting into the giant skinned cow heads that passed in front of us, dripping blood as they dangled from hooks.

“Yeah, I went to college,” I told him. As the next pause in our labor arrived, he asked the follow-up question: “So where’d you go?”