Balancing Independence and Connection

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I’ve lived in Los Angeles for many years, so I’m inured to a certain amount of weirdness, but I’m still capable of being taken aback. Most recently, it was discovering a new restaurant that incorporates donuts in every dish. Before that, it was taking a stroll through a nearby trendy retail area and being startled when one of the mannequins in the window moved.

Intrigued, I went inside and found them placed around the store: real, live people, stylishly dressed and frozen in various poses. They weren’t interactive. They were just meant to be looked at; novelty items to draw curious shoppers inside.

I found myself imagining the models’ lives after hours, speculating that they are aspiring actors and wondering whether they might be “discovered” this way. It felt kind of weird to be gawking at people that close up, with no reciprocity.

But how weird is it, really? Whenever you walk down the street, you size other people up on the basis of your observations, and have some kind of internal reaction. Certainly you're noticing more than just clothes, but that is how fashion trends begin and are sustained, right?

You see someone wearing something and like it, or you like something about a person or their image, you associate what they wear with the person, and then you want one, too. The stores with these “hu-mannequins” are just bringing the activity of people watching in-house, and providing a convenient (and profitable) means of satisfying any fashion-related urges that result.

Watch and learn

The power of observing others lies at the core of social learning theory, developed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s and 1970s. Put very simply, he believed that learning through direct experience was the most rudimentary type. More common is learning through the observation of others’ behavior. What they do, how they do it, and what the consequences are.

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An efficient “hive mind” develops that saves everyone from having to learn everything firsthand. It’s an arrangement that both exploits and perpetuates the social nature of the human. The drives motivating your behavior are mediated by what you witness, and in turn your actions influence the behavior of others.

Of course, it’s not just behavior that’s subject to mutual influence. Witnessing a gesture or facial expression, hearing a spoken word, and reading can prompt all manner of mental activity, emotions, and physical changes in you. For me, just looking at human mannequins was enough to fire up my imagination and feelings of curiosity.

At all times we are subject and object, source of information and blank canvas. In a sense, we are all living mannequins for each other.

This mutual influence, or interdependence, can yield positive or negative results. Through observation you identify like-minded others and come together in ways as superficial as shared styles of dress, or as deep as supportive relationships and communities. Yet, an unkind word spoken to another person might elicit negative feelings, distraction, or ill will, and create greater distance between the two of you.

A stranger allowing you to merge in front of him in traffic, or greeting you with a scowl versus a smile and a "good morning!" can affect the way you (and she) feel, if even for a moment. Even a third-party observer is affected by the acts he witnesses. We hold immense power over each other in this regard—the power to make or break someone’s day or heart.

Acknowledging your involvement

However, taking responsibility for the way your actions affect other people's feelings is not always a popular notion. In our society, we promote values like compassion, charity, and consideration of others in general, but also emotional self-reliance. These aren't mutually exclusive, but sometimes people act like they are when it suits them.

To illustrate, I once heard a person say to her partner, “You make me feel bad when you lie to me,” to which he responded, “I don’t make you feel anything. That’s all you!” You often hear this refrain—"I didn't make you feel anything"—from someone who has done something hurtful but doesn't want the responsibility for it, and instead uses the doctrine of personal responsibility as a get-out-of-jail-free card, or a weapon.

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But it’s equally bad form to say things like “you make me feel bad when you lie to me” in the first place. Someone who says this might, for example, be uncomfortable with their own feelings of vulnerability and prefer not to take ownership of them.

The statement is one-sided in that it shifts the responsibility for both the action and the emotional response onto the shoulders of the other person. It can also be perceived by the receiver as an attack and open the door to a defensive, unproductive, and equally one-sided response like the one above.

It's better to avoid the extremes and start with a fair description of each person's part in the situation: “When you lie to me, I feel bad” or, better yet, “When you lie to me, I feel like I can’t trust you, and then I start to worry.” This way, the parties’ roles in the situation are more accurately laid out as causes and effects, and a better foundation is laid for a calm and healthy dialogue.

You may not be able to make someone feel something, but the things you do and say will cause thoughts and emotions to arise within other people. Whether your actions and the other person's responses are wise or unwise, acceptable or unacceptable, is a different matter.

The point is that you can’t just opt out of interdependence when it serves your ego needs. You’re involved whether or not you like it at the moment, so why not build a bridge instead of a moat?

Caring what other people think: Not so bad

Another socially-sanctioned repudiation of interdependence can be heard whenever someone proudly proclaims that they don’t care what others think of them. Statements like “I don’t care what people think—I like this shirt!” or “If someone judges me by the kind of car I drive, then I don’t want to be their friend anyway.”

Many of us would applaud these sentiments as a celebration of individuality and a renouncement of conformity. Indeed, popular culture would have you believe that the less you care about what others think of you, the better. (Of course, at the same time, products are often sold to us by appealing to our desire to be seen more favorably by others.)

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But here’s the thing. If your friend is making these statements to you, it’s because she already feels accepted by you for those things.

She feels comfortable wearing her favorite unicorn-print shirt and picking you up in her Pinto because you like her anyway, and she likes you. You probably feel the same way about the unimportance of shirts and cars, and that’s one of the reasons you’re friends.

And chances are she does care what you think about her. Even if she's a stranger, it's a safe assumption that she cares about some peoples' opinions of her: the people who value her for the unique individual she is, and whom she is glad to have in her life.

A small percentage of the population feels truly unfazed by social norms and others’ opinions—which is generally a bad sign from a mental health perspective—but the rest of us do care.

Maybe we don’t care what people think of our shirts or cars, but we enjoy being liked, respected, and included, especially by the people we like. We want to be free to be ourselves, and then, with that true self of ours, connect with other people. Again, it’s a product of our social wiring. We don’t do well all by ourselves, and we thrive when we are connected to othersare held in positive regard by them, and receive their support in our efforts to thrive.

Good for you and good for us

So, unless you decide to become a mountain recluse, the fact is that you cannot step off the social playing field. Your needs for self-preservation, self-expression, healthy relationships, and affection co-exist, and your every action (and failure to act) yields a consequence for someone else.

By participating in society, whether walking down the street or talking to your partner, you agree to be student and teacher, affecter and affected.

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But any duality between these roles is really illusory because they co-arise with each other in each moment. You are an individual part of a larger functioning whole, just as a cell in your body both contributes to your body’s operation and is dependent upon it.

Just as there is never an instance when it would be preferable for a cell to turn cancerous, either for the cell or your body, there isn’t much justification for unwise, harmful, or divisive behavior.

Your self-interests are ultimately aligned with everyone else’s, so behaving in a way that is good for you includes making a positive impact on others, however near or far away they may be positioned in your sphere of influence. And that includes minding the impact you have on others even when they’re just observing.