And Ty Unglebower, as Himself

In my 11 years as a stage actor, I have played many roles. I have even played myself. Or, as the director of the production at the time put it, “an enhanced, stereotyped version of yourself.” So in one play I was, “Ty Unglebower”.

But that was a play. A unique play under unique circumstances. Yet at times I, like many people, can get caught up in playing “Ty Unglebower” in everyday life off stage as well.

It is a natural and sometimes unfortunate tendency in our society to categorize. Create labels for people. Place them in easily accessible slots. And I don’t just mean with strangers. We do it with our friends as well. Perhaps even more so with our friends than with those we do not know.

Here is an example. Think of your “gang.” The ones that you will probably be with on a free Saturday night once a month or something. Now be honest with yourself when I ask this; Does that group contain “The Dumb One“? Is “The Horny One” in there somewhere? And I bet there is “The Quiet One“. If not these three there has to be “The XYZ One” in your group. See what I mean?

These labels may have had some slight basis on truth in the beginning. “The Quiet One” really isn’t worried about working the room. “The Dumb One” probably talks before she thinks more often than others. Yet without anyone truly intending it, consider that those labels have gone from wide descriptions to expectations. That after a few years of adventures and tribulations together as a group, the label has begun to define the person, and not the other way around.

Sally is the “Dumb One”. But if you are not careful, her opinions will be dismissed out of hand when the topic is complex. Or they will be skipped over. Or she won’t be able to finish her thought. Why? Because she’s “The Dumb One”. Her role is to be cute and bubbly in the group, not deep. And so if thought is involved, you pat Sally on the head and move on. At least that’s how it starts.

But then something even worse happens. At some point Sally doesn’t offer anything to the discussion. She accepts that she is the “Dumb One” and starts to believe it. When the group goes out she says dumber and sillier things as time goes on, and never pays attention to the serious side of things, knowing that she should not be taken seriously at such times. Sally has become her label. The group’s expectations based on that label have become Sally’s own. Sally now plays the role of “The Dumb One” in the play that is your life, instead of being Sally as a whole person. After all, the group won’t accept or love her anymore if she starts acting like something other than “The Dumb One”.  She is now “Sally”.

Have you seen this happen? Have you been a part of creating a role for someone you know? Or have you yourself become the victim of your own role? I have.

“Ty Unglebower” stands up near a corner of the room, observing those who are dumber than he is. He wears jeans and golf shirts. He doesn’t like to be touched by anyone ever because warmth and affection disgust him. He remains silent until something in the room reminds him of a topic by which he is annoyed or confused, at which point he will lash out loudly in an enthusiastic rant of high vocabulary, much to the uproarious laughter of those nearby. The world pisses him off. People piss him off. And he wants everyone to know just how damn clever he can be in expressing that sentiment.

Ty Unglebower is an introvert who sometimes feels crowded in a small room. He likes to be near the wall sometimes because it is easier to see where everyone and everything is. Jeans and golf-shirts are not only comfortable to him, but fit in with 90% of occasions, thus eliminating the need to have a fashion sense.

He respects the boundaries of other people, and thinks it is only fair that others who do not yet know him respect his.

He doesn’t need to be the center of attention very often, preferring to engage one on one with the people in the room that matter to him. But when he is the center of attention of the whole room, usually as a result of someone asking him to be, he is damn sure not going to sanitize his answers to a question. As a writer he considers language to be an important tool, and hence puts in extra effort to use it well, in all circumstances. He is pleased when his friends are entertained by this, but speaks the same way at home to his mother.

He is world-weary and has a shortage of close, personal friends, and that has in some ways forged his viewpoints, though he tries to alter them as time goes on. If he is clever it is because he has been exposed to many things in his life, and has made the specific effort, on the lifelong advice of his mother, to always pay attention. (Another reason he likes the corner.)

Ty Unglebower can become “Ty Unglebower” at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, I have to say. But the urge to rant because I am “The Ranter”, or the sense of expectation that I won’t introduce myself to anyone new because I am the “Aloof One” can be pretty large at times, even today.

You don’t have to succumb to your role. I have a right to dance any given night I feel I want to. Sally has every right and ability to express her views on the complex subjects that come up. “The Horny One” should certainly expect to be left alone if she is in no mood for interaction tonight. It all starts with the choice to not play ourselves. It all starts with writing own own scene, and not taking all of our cues from the audience.

What role do you play in the production of your life? What is your label? Do you know anybody who has one of these labels I mentioned, and do you ever think if that label is fair?

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6 Comments

  1. I find myself connecting to this post because I've noticed that, no matter how hard I try, I'm a different person with each group of friends.

    When I was growing up, I was incredibly shy. People thought I was snobby and standoffish. I was a pushover, and often ended up having friends with strong personalities who walked all over me. I receded into the background.

    I'm still an introvert. I'm still shy. I still experience social anxiety. But I've come into my own. I can be friendly and social and funny, when my energy is up. I'm more confident in my abilities, and I like to help others.

    Still, when I'm out with older friends, I revert. I recede back into the background. I'm a lesser version of myself. My standoffishness? A defense mechanism.

    I wish I could be the best version of myself all the time.

    Thanks for this post, Ty!

    p.s. I'm fascinated by the fact that you're so involved with theater, being an introvert and all. I know that introversion and social anxiety are two separate things, but mine go hand in hand. I cantor funeral masses, but I feel extreme anxiety every damn time. I wish I could do speaking engagements for my coaching biz, but I'm too scared. Any advice on how I can improve in the courage department?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Steph.

    You are not the first one to bring up the concept of being different people to different groups. One person even told me that it is better to pretend to be whatever is most socially acceptable to any given group, so that you can have more groups and get along better with more people. Needless to say, I don't agree with that.

    That isn't to say some aspects of our personality don't get more air time in front of certain friends than in front of others. But I think there is a big difference between the slight natural variations we display depending on our group, and allowing the group to dictate what and who we are. Because no matter what aspect of our personality is dominant in a given group, it can still be natural.

    From what I gather, your example of how you “revert” when with older friends is exactly what I am talking about. You still feel that need to play the version of you that used to always be that way. You are still an introvert of course, and always will be, but it sounds as though you are capable of being less “background” now, and yet still gravitate towards that role when with certain people. Even though it isn't 100% you anymore. I sympathize with that, as I am still working on not playing the aloof one at certain times. It's a process indeed.

  3. Such a great post! I really love how you did into your personal reflection of self as an example for all of us, your readers. So brave. 🙂

  4. Thanks, Noel. I don't know how brave I am, but I do want to share the observations with others. =)

  5. Anonymous

    Sounds like an old Bill Cosby routine: “I need to be the real authentic me!” “What if the real authentic you is a jerk and an asshole?”

  6. You are absolutely right: Nobody should have to succumb to a role. It should be a choice, not something you feel guilt tripped or forced or shuffled into, whether by yourself, friends or strangers. And we're hardest on ourselves. Long after the person attributing a label to you has left, we remember. It's like it gets into our DNA.

    I think I fall into the “Observer” role a lot. Generally speaking, I'm more comfortable taking in a scene for a few minutes on the periphery, listening and filing away perceptions before jumping in the middle. This can happen in any setting, large or small, and may well be related to shyness or introversion.

    By contrast, I watch mega-extroverted friends just bounce right in as if propelled by an elemental force, coming in elbows-out and yelling, sparkling, shining, drawing all the attention. The sun to my moon! *hand to forehead alas*

    Whereas I, even recognizing that a good measure of this shyness is a crutch and a choice, still sometimes have to give myself an inner push to walk into a room full of people AND make eye contact off the bat. What if they're looking back at me? Eek! It may sound silly, but I developed a hyper-awareness of eyeballs at a young age and never quite shook it off. In an instant, I can go right back to that state of mind even though rationally I know I can get over it (or through it).

    I do think knowing that relates to why I've also adopted the term “Gamma Wolf.” Following the Alpha and Beta schematic, Gamma Wolves lope around the outside of the pack, off doing their own thing, aware of what's going on but not always having to be involved. Like the Alpha, they can step in and take charge, but unlike the Alpha, it's not imperative. I've seen more than a few puzzled Alphas when a Gamma suddenly takes the attention out of their hands.

    I also seem to have “Empath” tattooed on my forehead because I seem to get a lot of confidences, even from people I barely know. I've managed to shake off most of the ones who exhaust themselves sharing so much that they never bother to ask how the hell I'm doing in return…

    All this when I really don't like labels either! Too constricting and connotative. But often helpful to start building understanding, then you can take the labels off.

    So going back to the “Observer”/Watching Eyeballs thing, I do think this reaction largely depends on how comfortable I am with my surroundings. I've mentioned “my” bar to you before, the one that feels like Cheers. Even if everybody doesn't know your name, the mere fact that you're stepping through the door in the first place means you are welcome. That's one of the few public places I could walk into by myself, and switch from being just “The Observer” to adding in other aspects without even thinking about it, and so, perhaps, the labels cease to exist.

    Oddly enough, social media has helped me step out of that default role I seem to push myself into. My day job involves talking to people online about my company. That's me sitting at a computer talking in my head to people I may never meet in person. Yet I've gone to networking functions in the evening right after, still riding on the crest of all those connections, and found that I too could breeze in, make eye contact and start talking with “real” people. Is it sudden extroversion? Tapping into a latent facet of myself? Something else?

    We've been talking about balance recently, and I'd like to achieve balance between extro- and introversion. Both still have their uses, but they also have pitfalls without it.

    What are some of the things blogging and social media in general has done to you?

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