How we all see different aspects of the same people

I am always intrigued with people, particularly the way they can show different aspects of themselves. A while back I was discussing the local writing field with somebody and a third person’s name came up. ‘He’s a really nice guy,’ my friend said.

I begged to differ: I knew him only as a stranger who’d made unprovoked and malicious public attacks on my good name and professional repute, all behind my back, then repeatedly cowered behind silence when asked to explain himself. I could put a dollar figure to his conduct because his behaviour had also interfered with my ability to fairly apply for work in his university department. And he had not had the personal integrity to approach me to discuss his problem with my existence, or allow me to learn anything else about him.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

You’d think we were talking about two different people. But we weren’t. Of course, the difference was that my friend hadn’t published anything commercially in this guy’s field of employment at my expense as a taxpayer. And I had, which apparently made me a threat to be destroyed. But still – proverbial ‘nice guy’ versus ‘deeply insecure bully-coward’ was quite a contrast.

It goes to show how complex people actually are. And it underscores the fact that people also only show aspects of themselves. It’s more intense on social media, where the nature of the vehicle further frames both the way people can express themselves, and the interactions that follow.

This last has become all the more important of late, as social media has become the default interaction point of choice. And studies have shown why discussion threads on, typically, Facebook so swiftly degenerate to angry slanging matches between strangers. The issue, it seems, flows from the fact that the content is effectively ‘conversational’, certainly in terms of the speed with which it is composed; but it is written down. The body language and subtle visual clues of a face-to-face discussion are absent, and the speed of composition also means the content is likely ambiguous; or will have grammatical or typographical errors. But it’s received at face value as written wording.

You see the issue – not only do people simply show an aspect of themselves in these interactions, but the way it’s presented also shapes the way it’s received.

The issue begs a wider question, one that always crops up for biographers. How can we perceive the ‘real’ person, particularly when confronted with the limitations of source material? And even if we can, how can we then express that understanding? As always, there are techniques for handling this kind of question; but at the end of the day, any analysis can only ever be partial. People are like that: complex.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

13 thoughts on “How we all see different aspects of the same people

  1. Ugh, we’ve all met ‘two-faced’ people in our lives, but yours sounds particularly nasty. I know of an Indie author [not me] who was doing quite well until she fell foul of the ringleader of an online group. This ringleader had been instrumental in driving success in the first place. After the falling out, she and her group blasted the author’s new release with masses of 1 star reviews. It seems that where there’s power, there’ll be abuse. Isn’t humanity great?

    As to social media, I agree in general, but I believe the Facebook algorithms are also to blame. Not sure if it’s still the case, but I’ve read that the ‘bubble’ phenomenon is fostered by algorithms that look for contentious issues and supply the readership with more of the same in order to amplify the issue and keep people engaged for longer. The purpose, of course, is so they can be blasted with more advertising while they are so engaged. 😦

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    1. I think the guy was less nasty as utterly gutless and so insecure that, despite having every advantage over me in every way – status, income, access to publishers and so forth – he had to still treat me like a war criminal for writing in his territory. I suppose he imagined the fact of my doing so somehow diminished whatever status he saw from his own work. It was kind of weird because military history was a passing opportunity for me and one I’ve since largely moved on from; there is so much to write about, and so many things to investigate. My critic continues to pen book after book about the same very narrow field. I guess it’s all to do with how people are.


        1. My stuff was being mainstream professionally published by major houses (Penguin, Random House etc) – the only difference was that I wasn’t employed by a university. I think the problem was that I existed. Had I been working in a university I would probably have had the same treatment from him.


          1. Ah, apologies! I have met academics like that. They’re defined by their area of expertise so any external threat to their pet subject becomes a direct threat to their sense of self. 😦

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  2. Very much agree that people are complex and often only show certain sides of themselves (especially on social media) but I also think this is often more of a problem with sly people (well, based on your story, that’s how I’d define the guy you mentioned- which would explain why someone might think he’s a nice guy as well- though I may be reading too much into it)

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    1. I agree – and the ability some people have to ‘weaponise’ social media on the back of their own character seems incredible sometimes. In the case of the fellow I’m describing here, I think he’s not subtle enough to be sly; he’s simply so utterly insecure and cowardly that he can’t handle (nor has the guts to properly engage) others who achieve on their own efforts in the same field as himself.


  3. Reminds me of Roberto Assagioli’s subpersonalities in his psychology of psychosynthesis. At different times we become different subpersonalities, and without a cultivated awareness we we just ARE them at that time.


    1. I think that’s true to a considerable extent, though it seems to me that to categorise the human condition in terms of particular ‘types’ is to miss the continuity of reality. Against that could be set the idea that people are attracted to fields in which they feel most comfortable (for me, epitomised by Norman Dixon’s analysis of military incompetence) – generating a picture of archetypes which, doubtless, enables such categorisation. I’ve professionally written various biographies (and am working on one now) – so thinking about such matters is not an idle consideration for me. I sometimes wonder whether, really, we’re all just 4-year olds in fundamental human-ness – becoming an adult merely provides ways to hide the inner child, and sometimes the facade of adulthood falls away. Of course the human condition is complex; but I can think of at least one significant public figure, here in New Zealand, who I had quite a bit to do with professionally who was basically that 4-year old. Sometimes that aspect wasn’t well hidden.


      1. The point about Assagioli’s subpersonalities is that at different times we may behave in completely different ways, depending on which subpersonality is ‘in charge’. Eg we all have an ‘angry’ subpersonality that can appear quite deranged. Some like this may be archetypal; others may be simply habitual response patterns.

        And yes, some UK politicians behave like 4 year olds much of the time!

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        1. I think his observations were certainly valid – this is indeed how people perform. The question is why. I’ve got the same problem with psychosynthesis theory as an explanation for that as I have with psychology generally; like a lot of twentieth century thinking, it over-systematises the analysis and usually fails to properly divorce it from immediate cultural considerations. To me, Assagioli was – like Jung – of his time philosophically and an early extender of and reaction to Freud. This is not to reduce his contribution; but we have to give it due place.

          To me all of this is interesting because it represents approaches to explain observation; and the approaches are, themselves, of interest. Exactly how and why people behave as they do is the point at question – and it is an interesting one in which ‘all of the above plus stuff nobody’s thought of yet’ may well be one answer. I suspect, given that it’s mathematically impossible to fully examine a system from within that system, that there is no absolute answer. Have a look at some other posts I wrote on this issue, I’d be interested in your thoughts: (comment here, I set WordPress to close comments after eight weeks).

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          1. Thanks, Matthew. I’ve read your article about psychology and agree with much of the thrust, particularly about pseudoscience and the unnecessary putting of labels on people.

            But I also think there’s much good in growth psychologies such as Maslow’s hierarchy, Assagioli’s psychosynthesis, Carl Rogers’ person centred counselling etc etc – that relate directly to the real human being, his/her potential and how to grow towards it, including the spiritual dimension. In my mind it’s all about achieving our potential, even why we are here.

            Of course, this is nothing to do with the DSM and its categories.

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