Manipulation seems like such a dirty word.
And yet, as a Social Psychology student, my books were filled with terms like “influence,” “persuasion,” “schema activation,” and “behavior modification”—apparently, my undergraduate years were spent learning how to constrain the range of salient choices available to others. Over the years, my work has evolved, but I often think back to my initial interest in the subject and how it was closely linked to the work of Goffman, although I was not able to articulate the connection at the time.
As a former admission officer, the implications of self-presentation are often glaringly obvious for anyone who has set foot inside of a high school: from stereotypical cliques to personal dress and demeanor, students broadcast an incredible number of messages as they attempt to manufacture, consolidate, express, and identify their senses of self. Goffman suggests that this exchange of information can occur through processes that the actor willfully controls (or is perceived to) and those that are communicated without conscious knowledge. Further exploring the relationship between audience, message, and source, we encounter the work of Gross who labels sign-events either “natural” or “symbolic.” Although natural sign-events undoubtedly have a measure of usefulness when it comes to interacting with the physical world around us, the symbolic seem most relevant to Goffman’s discussion of interpersonal interaction and the nature of socially-constructed reality.
Although we might discuss the potential of fashion to figure into this process, I tend to think about it more broadly in terms of information and power; as Goffman mentions, a constant tension exists between actor and audience as both parties attempt to ascertain who knows what about whom. And, in many ways, possessing a more complete picture of the situation allows one to better dictate the nature of the interaction, for understanding the rules of the game (i.e., Goffman’s “working consensus”)—or even knowing that you are playing one in the first place!—leads to more desirable outcomes, particular when we are trying to deceive others about who we are.
There seems to be a biological imperative for deception, as the act, in its many forms, can serve to reduce the cost of obtaining something of value (e.g., goods, services, protection, contentment, etc.), but while animals have traditionally employed this tactic for self-preservation (e.g., mimicry), human beings have taken the practice to more complex levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as we slowly exit the Age of Information, many current deceptive practices revolve around the manipulation of knowledge. Online, we might “fudge” our profile pictures in an attempt to lessen the rejection that we so desperately seek to avoid in real life or we might alter a personal characteristic in order to test the waters of a new identity in an environment that allows us to process anxiety and judgment from the safety of our homes. I often wonder how those of us who use social media cultivate our profiles, tending to them like gardens: to what extent do we fetishize our online presence, letting it define us instead of the other way around? It would seem that while the relative ease of online deception confers us some cognitive defense, it also threatens to overwhelm us with delusion.
We lie to others and, perhaps even worse, lie to ourselves. We look outward for acceptance and affirmation instead of delving inward to confront the deepest parts of ourselves. Technology has allowed us, as individuals, to connect over vast differences and afforded us many opportunities that we might not otherwise have; yet, in some ways, it has also left us disconnected from the things that (arguably) matter the most.
 Although this is a separate topic, I am incredibly interested in the ways in which perform acts of self-deception, as I think that these have the potential to harm us in spectacular ways. Using Goffman’s theater metaphor, I think it is fascinating to consider what happens when the “backstage” is really just the “front stage” for our inner psyche.
“This implies, does it not, that in order to raise a generation of children who can reach their full potential, we must find a way to make their lives interesting. And the question I have for you, Mr. Hackworth, is this: Do you think that schools accomplish that? Or are they like the schools Wordsworth complained of?”
–Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Fifteen years after these words are written, we are still struggling to answer the question posed by Science Fiction author Neal Stephenson. Increasingly, we are finding that our American educational system does not raise a generation of children to reach their full potential; arguments about mental acuity aside, we seem to suffer from a generation of college applicants that is, well, rather uninteresting. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing students out there–there definitely are some–but they are more the exception than the rule.
To combat this, we have seen a rise in adult-driven initiatives that aim to cultivate interesting children. Although I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do disagree with the practice. Fantastic trips and summer camps are not, in and of themselves, the problem. (Certainly, I think we have come adopt a rather distorted view of what’s important and, on some level, we’ve all heard these arguments before. Bigger is better, theater audiences want to see their money on stage, news headlines scream at us, spectacle is rampant, etc.) Rather, I take issue with the idea that many applicants try to substitute someone else’s story for their own: time and time again, I have come across students who traveled to poor villages, or did research, or spent the summer living in European hostels and they typically tell me the same story. These students tell me the central narrative of what they were supposed to have learned or experienced on these adventures and, sometimes, force themselves to have those experiences whether they are genuine or not. Without realizing it, many of subscribed to the notion that there is a typical experience one is supposed to have in the Costa Rican jungles and they recount this like it was the most magical awakening. And, to be fair, it might have been, but I would argue that the shift in perspective is only part of it–everyone goes through an awakening at some point in his or her life–what I want from students is to understand what this change wrought in them. How did you learn something that forever changed the way that you saw the world, such that you couldn’t ever go back?
Or we extol the virtues of Boredom as a provider of quiet spaces free from stimulation, forgetting that, with the incredible, restless youth have also managed to enact incredible amounts of destruction. The practices of contemplation, introspection, and awareness can result from boredom but we are mistaken if we consider boredom to be a prerequisite.
Ultimately, I think that teaching kids to cultivate a passion is not the same as demanding mastery–sure, passion may lead to mastery and I’m not trying to stifle that process–but all I really want is for a student to want to be smarter, to be braver, to be more inquisitive. Simply put, all I really want is for a student to want to be more. If this is our goal, the trips and the flashy photos and the houses built all melt away for we see that we can have–that we do have–meaningful experiences every day. We don’t need to “discover” hidden truths but we do need to reconsider what’s happening around, to, and in us. I think we need to train kids how to understand the import of their “normal” lives and, perhaps more importantly, how to translate these lessons learned into purposeful action.
In a few months, many of you will hear classmates stand up and give a speech that celebrates where you have come, but also, more importantly, where you will go in the future. Your peers will begin reflecting on the times that you have spent together and attempt to encapsulate the entirety of your high school experience in a few choice words. These people will do their best to soothe the nerves of those around them, peering into the future with sagacity far beyond their years. This, I am afraid, will seem like one of those speeches. However, do not fret for I have sat through these talks—and even given a few—and I will do my best to make my story as entertaining as possible.
From this point forward, you will find yourselves involved with a myriad of activities ranging from prom, to commencement, to five hundred graduation parties, to the inevitable “best, last, and greatest goodbye celebration” for you and your friends. I remember madly rushing around, desperate to create and capture memories, sure that I would keep them with me forever. Savor these moments and hold them close, not out of fear for losing something dear to you, but because they demonstrate, in a very subtle way, how much you have grown over the past four years.
Coming to campus for the first time, I admittedly had trepidations about the school for I had never lived in a place other thanHawaii. Would I get along with my roommate? Why did the sky look brown? What were flip-flops? How would I sneak my rice cooker into the dorm without my RA noticing? I distinctly remember the first time that I stepped foot on the USC campus as an “official” student: on that day, I felt out of place for I realized that while I attended the University of Southern California, I had yet to become a Trojan. Making the transition to college life always represents a challenge, I think, although we may not admit it at the time. As freshmen, we arrive on campus and begin the often-intimidating process of integrating ourselves into a community that seems all too large and detached. We venture off into the unknown, attempting to pass off our fears as excitement, sometimes portraying the image that we want to meet others simply because we have a amicable disposition—and not because we desperately seek to make friends. Those first few days it seems so much easier to lie still and be safe, and a giant leap of faith seems easy when everyone you’ve asked is so sure. Yet, sometimes the only way is jumping—I hope you’re not afraid of heights.
Now, all of those memories seem so far behind me for I find myself a senior with a mere month until graduation. When I think back on my time at USC, I find that I have accomplished my goal, although not in a way that I had anticipated. I, like many of my peers, came to the University to learn, and I found that I have. I now know how to write a paper containing more than five paragraphs, the seductive nature of afternoon naps, that I have the best friends in the world, and that frozen yogurt makes everything just a little better. But, most importantly, I know who I am—well, at least I think so. College has enabled me to discover what I will and will not do, challenged my thinking, and made me realize what I will fight for. This knowledge, in turn, has served to foster a sense of pride—a feeling achieved only after coming to terms with oneself. For me, so much of this sentiment stems from my time inSouthern California; the experiences that I have had at USC have become an intrinsic part of my identity. And, talking to other students at the University, I know that others feel the same as I. On campus, the student body has developed a way to express the exuberance that they feel: Fight On. I truly believe that each individual on the USC grounds feels a sense of pride—there really is no other word for it—in belonging to the Trojan Family. Yet, this phrase that we utter, often without a second thought, gently reminds us to temper our pride with a sense of humility. The words “Fight On” issue a silent challenge to those who say them, inviting us to always strive to do, and be, better. Looking back, I realize that I have finally become a Trojan.
I sat for a long time, trying to think about how to close my talk. I tried to think back a few years to what I wanted to hear as a senior, to what I wish I had heard before embarking on what would surely be one of the most exciting and precious journeys of my life. As the time to give my speech drew near, I found myself lacking inspiration and I began to panic. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered a book that I had read, and one that you surely will become familiar with in the coming months. Throughout my life, I have found myself continually drawn to this poet’s ability to convey incredibly profound and complex ideas in words so simple that even a child could understand them. Therefore, in the words of Theodore Geisel, I leave you with this message: No matter what college you attend, you have all proven that you have brains in your head and that you have feet in your shoes, that you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. From now on, you are on your own—you know what you know—and you are the one who will decide where to go. So be your name Chang, or Nakamura, or Kaneaiakala-Ventura, you’re off to great places! Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way. And, of course, Fight On.
How else to start a series about sexual health than to talk about my introduction to the act itself? With any luck, my parents will never read this and will forever assume that I am a wholesome youngster who has no idea what the word “sex” even means.
Back to my junior year of high school and my first real relationship…
I had been going out with a girl for about six months and eventually things developed to the point where I felt like I was ready to have sex for the first time. I predictably stressed out over the matter and wondered if this girl was the right one to lose my virginity to but I was also dismayed to discover that the video of “Where Did I Come From?” that I had seen in third grade had been completely wrong! There was going to be a whole lot more to this thing than two bodies just rubbing up against each other (although, to be honest, at that point it would have probably been enough for me).
I hadn’t seen much porn at that point in my life and certainly wasn’t shown by anybody else how to go about my business, so how was I supposed to know what to do? Sex wasn’t something that I talked about with my family, my friends had known each other since kindergarten and we certainly did not want to hear about each other’s sexual exploit, and I was also much too embarrassed to ask for help in this situation.
Luckily, at this point, two ideas kicked in: the confidence that my parents had instilled in me to do what I felt was right and the ability to think for myself. As much as I might have periodically hated my parents while I was growing up, I do have to say that they did teach me how to stand up against things that I didn’t believe in. Sure, I caved into peer pressure on occasion, but I also learned that doing something that I wasn’t comfortable with was never a good idea. I discovered that if I just took a second and blocked out the outside voices telling me to do, I usually ended up making the right call. These principles guided me to make what I thought were smart choices about my relationship and about sex.
A few minutes and a failed attempt or two later, it was over.
Looking back, I am fully confident that my first time did not represent my best work. Not even close. As big a deal as I made it out to be, I honestly can’t even recall what happened, when it happened, or where it happened. Well, that’s not entirely true; I do know that there was cheesy music and candles. Give me a break; I was in high school! Anyway, does that mean that the experience wasn’t great and special? Hardly. Maybe it just means that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t as monumental as I thought it was going to be.
It has been years since I’ve lost my virginity and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. Talking to friends, experiencing media, and even making a mistake or two has shown me that while I still don’t know everything there is to know about sex, I know a whole lot. As I’ve matured, the notion of sex has gotten increasingly complicated. Now, instead of just worrying about having an unplanned pregnancy, I have to also consider dating potential, infections, performance, and even what lurking bundle of crazy I’ll release by sleeping with someone.
Although navigating through the often-perilous terrain of sex and relationships has gotten more difficult, it’s also become a lot more fun. Armed with a bit of self-confidence, a pen, some perspective, and of course a condom or two, I will share my experiences, rants, thoughts, and stories. What I might to say might be funny, poignant, or heart breaking, but it will always be genuine.