There’s a Japanese proverb that tells of our three faces: the first we show to the outside world, the second to our friends and family and the third only to ourselves. Apparently the author of the proverb favors their third face, because my exhaustive Google searches were unable to pinpoint the saying’s origins, despite multiple sources labeling it as a piece of wisdom from “the Japanese.”
Mildly exoticized aphorism aside, I think most of us can identify with the idea of having multiple faces. No one acts the exact same way around everyone — we all make small adjustments to our inflections and vernacular depending on who we’re with and where we’ve drawn the lines of suitably familiar behavior.
Family is most people’s first and longest lasting social environment and is therefore an important consideration when comparing one’s various selves. As the power dynamic between me and my parents has evolved to match my growing maturity, I’ve found that even between the two of them, I’ve formed different selves.
With my mom, I’m a smart-mouthed contrarian who can start an argument over just about anything. We’re similar enough in personality that we can talk for hours, but different enough in opinion that we’re never totally in agreement. Conversations with my dad usually end up turning to subjects like faith, masculinity and politics.
My parents, in addition to being authority figures, are the only people in the world who both know me as well as they do and love me unconditionally. They don’t know all of my faces, but they have played a role in creating each and every one of them.
Longtime friends allow me a different kind of intimacy: one with a deep bench of inside jokes and shared experiences to draw upon. We’ve all had to endure the same oddball physics teacher or remember building gingerbread houses while Buddy the Elf helped fuel Santa’s sleigh with Christmas spirit. Our closeness affords me a sharp, if sometimes excessively brutal, wit that they have (hopefully) learned to detect.
My friends don’t know or care for me as much as my parents do, but they offer a companionship and relatability that my family can’t. I get to lower certain barriers around them and put on my most entertaining face. We’ve been witness to each other’s most pubescent of low points and can share frustrations that we feel our parents wouldn’t understand.
My college face is still a work in progress. It won’t need to stick around for very long, but nonetheless is good practice for the big life transitions that I will inevitably have to face. I usually see my college self as the straight man to much of the sarcasm that I keep beneath the surface. The lovably derisive joke teller that is constantly rattling off quips has to contend with the social distance that usually obscures the friendly playfulness and insight that my sense of humor relies so heavily on.
There’s also my Noah’s Arc face: the persona I adopt when writing this column. Noah’s Arc gives me an outlet to share musings and observations that don’t really have anywhere else to go but are still bouncing around in my head. Anyone who has sat through a long conversation with me has probably heard some tangent that eventually became a column. I’m able to craft a totally new voice for myself and can take control over how I’m understood; there are few places I feel more confident in myself than in my writing.
Then there is the last face: the one shown only to ourselves. We might be able to fool our friends, family and readers, but isolation gives us no safety nets. At the end of the day, everyone has to deal with some form of self-criticism and insecurity. No matter how put-together someone’s life might seem on the surface, no one can escape the quiet moments of fear and doubt that we never let show on our other faces.
Our inner face is the scariest as our inner thoughts can often be unpredictable and sometimes troubling. Not only that, it’s impossible to truly see inside someone’s mind, leaving us to only speculate what others’ inner faces might look like.
Each of our numerous faces is an equally representative depiction of who we are. We may prefer or be more flattered by certain personas, but we can never definitively say which is really us. In the same way, we can never know all of someone else’s faces, no matter how close to them we may be. Some faces will fade and be lost to time, while others are simply too vulnerable to be shared.
Noah Do is a rising junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected] Noah’s Arc runs periodically this summer.