Homo Theatricales: Toward a New Classification of the Species

Cairo, Egypt. Source: https://benfa.smugmug.com.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” — William Shakespeare. As You Like It.

If there is one unique trait that sets us apart as a species, it’s not our ability to speak (even parrots can do that) nor our propensity to collaborate (even ants and termites can do that) but rather our amazing ability to create narratives and stories, seemingly out of thin air, and to then cast ourselves and those around us as actors in those ever-evolving story lines.

Think about a fight you had with your spouse last night. Remember the yelling, the pouting, the anger and indignation in your voice. Now let’s say your phone rings and you notice it’s a good friend you haven’t seen in a month.

Within a few milliseconds, your entire demeanor changes; you answer the phone with a smile on your face and a calm voice. You talk for a few minutes, even laugh and joke, and then hang up.

Instantly, the anger and resentment returns as you slip back into the character you’d left behind, raising your voice and getting right back into the argument.

Within a few seconds, we switch from anger to happiness and back. Our emotions are, in fact, completely under our control and change based on the scene we find ourselves in. If that’s not acting, I don’t know what is.

The way I act with my daughter is different from how I act with my wife which is different from how I act with my beer buddies which is different from how I act with my boss which is different from how I act with the waiter serving me in a restaurant which is different from how I imagine acting if I were ever to meet Barack Obama.

It seems like every interaction we have with others, at one level or another, is part of a role we play that applies to that specific situation and audience (no negative connotations implied).

It’s this instinctive ability to create and retain information about a thousand different scenarios simultaneously, and to act accordingly in each case, that sets us apart as a species. No other species can even come close. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may be capable of acting out half a dozen “personas” but ours is the only species that seems to have perfected the art of “acting”, of creating personas and story lines and dramatic plot lines — and then of acting in those plays.

Others have pointed out that humans are the only species that creates and tells stories. We’re also the only species that acts in those same stories. We’re not only Homo Sapiens but also Homo Theatricales.

A single individual can simultaneously be a father, a brother, a son, an engineer, a runner, a curmudgeon, a musician, a soccer coach, a second generation Irish immigrant, a poker player, a devout Catholic, a wine aficionado, and many other things — all at the same time.

In every social situation, we play out one or more of these (often conflicting) roles and others respond to us by playing the appropriate accompanying roles. Most of us are good actors in only a few of the dramas we play in. Often, we merely plod along as an extra or, at best, a bit player in the dramas in our lives, letting someone else write the plot.

I bring this up for one reason and one reason alone. It’s often very difficult for us to “step out of character” but doing so can be illuminating.

How strongly do you really feel about your stance in that fight you’re having with your spouse? How much do you really hate that Muslim, that Jew, that immigrant, that African-American, that conservative, that democrat, that xyz? Could it possibly be that you’re just used to playing that particular role? How hard would it be to change your act?

It’s only when you realize that you’re always acting that you also recognize your innate ability to change your performance at any time, to play a different role — regardless of the circumstances.

It’s just an act, you tell yourself, and if it’s an “act”, I can choose to play a different role, to act differently. I find the thought liberating.

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