For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by the strange behaviors of some extended family members. There’s the Thermostat Commander, who went to a shiva at a stranger’s house and took it upon herself to turn up the temperature a few degrees. The Accoster, who cornered unwitting relatives every Thanksgiving dinner and talked our ears off for hours, not noticing that we weren’t exactly … interested. And lately, the Mundane Poster, who has mastered the “me right now” Facebook status update. I’m really sorry, but I just don’t care that you dropped a chip in the dip.
I thought they were driven by different personality traits. But in college, I learned that they shared a trait in common. I took a personality psychology class with Brian Little, and his lecture on self-monitoring was eye-opening. High self-monitors are motivated and skilled at adapting to the expectations of the situation. Low self-monitors gravitate more toward consistency: They’re adept at expressing themselves and transcending the constraints of social norms.
Suddenly I understood: I come from an extended family of low self-monitors. The Thermostat Commander would literally say, “Stop monitoring my behavior—I’m being myself.” And apparently, I responded by becoming a high self-monitor. In elementary school one of my ongoing fears was getting shushed in a library. One day I got called to the principal’s office; I got there and found out I was not in trouble, but I still cried. To this day, I even monitor my self-monitoring: I’ve actually asked people how much self-monitoring they expect in a given situation.
My aha was that low self-monitors don’t intend to be rude or inappropriate. They’re just aiming to be themselves. But if your idea of being yourself is turning up the dial on a stranger’s thermostat, it might be time to turn up the dial on your self-monitoring instead.