Social Chameleons - People who Change According to the Circumstances

Social Chameleons - People who Change According to the Circumstances
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Social chameleons are champions when it comes to making a good impression. They do not hesitate to practice the kind of emotional mercantilism where they hide their own feelings, thoughts, and opinions in order to be accepted and get the approval of others. It is a type of practice which causes, of course, serious side effects to one’s own dignity.

It is very likely that many of our readers will remember a curious Woody Allen movie called “Zelig.” In it, the protagonist presents a curious supernatural ability – he is able to change his appearance completely to adapt to any environment in which he finds himself. Finally, a young psychoanalyst warns Leonard Zelig that his real problem is that his extreme insecurity leads him to camouflage himself among people to feel accepted.

“He who is authentic assumes the responsibility to be what he is, and recognizes himself free to be what he is.”

-Jean Paul Sartre

This is undoubtedly an extreme case. A fun audiovisual reflection that Allen took in order to talk about psychology, identity problems, and our society. However, there is a fact that we cannot ignore – we are all, in a certain ways, social chameleons. 

It’s not easy to be ourselves

Showing ourselves as we are, without any fissure and with total transparency is not always easy. We fear “what they will say”, we are afraid to disappoint, attract attention, or not be what others expect from us. Living in society forces us to fit. We all know that. However, it is important to remember that the key is to learn to be people, not characters. Being a person means knowing how to respect others with their nuances, their opinions, their virtues, and their rarities. It also means we are able to practice honesty, not diluting our identity and values out of a desire to be accepted.

The key is learning to be people, not characters. 


Social chameleons and the psychological cost

Mark Snyder, a well-known social psychologist at the University of Minnesota, is an expert in the study of this universal need to be socially accepted.  An interesting aspect that he reveals to us is that social chameleons are tremendously unhappy people. Let’s think about it for a moment, imagine someone who forces himself to be like those around him every day.

To achieve this, you must get used to thinking and feeling something and doing the opposite. You must live within a constant contradiction, to oscillate between the private face and the public mask. To laugh when you do not feel like it. To live compulsively. This almost addictive behavior in which you always try to make a good impression rarely succeeds in establishing lasting and satisfying links. What’s more, this normally causes true psychological exhaustion.

We cannot forget that, to “mimic”, the social chameleon we must be attentive to the social codes of each context. You must observe, or read, the implicit and explicit communication happening around you. You must imitate but, above all, you must show an extraordinary plasticity with which to be always highly convincing.

woman with mask

Being the right person in each moment also requires us to always be aware of the way others react. Hence, we constantly monitor their social performance, adjusting our behavior in order to obtain the desired effect. As we can deduce, the wear and tear of all this in the short and long term is immense.

For authentic social chameleons, anything goes. They lose their dignity, principles, and even system of values in order to achieve success. To feel integrated into the group or achieve recognition. However, by mimicking and playing so many roles, they will never be able to establish authentic relationships, to have valuable friends, stable partners with whom then can be themselves, without any mask…

Social chameleons or social zebras, you choose

There are professions for which, whether we like it or not, we need chameleonic skills. We need them to create impact, seduce, attract customers, build trust, and even manipulate. Thus, jobs such as politics, law, marketing, advertising, theater, or diplomacy require psychological juggling. In these fields, to mimic is synonymous with survival and even triumph.

All of us, in a certain way, have been social chameleons at some time. However, specialists in this area, such as Dr. Mark Snyder, tells us that if we really want to have an authentic emotional health, wisdom, and balance, we should learn to be “social zebras”.

No matter where a zebra is, no matter who or what is next to it, they will always be the same. Their stripes will never change. This supposes, of course, that they are an easy target for predators which, as we already know, exist in social contexts as well. So, our “stripes” may not be the skin, the style, the character, or tone of voice that pleases everyone. However, the few who are captivated by our authenticity and curious nuances will be our best allies.

zebras being social chameleons

To conclude, few things can be as unfruitful and exhausting as to try to please everyone. Being a piece able to fit into each puzzle or bolt that fits each gear. Such a skill is not credible or healthy. Let’s learn to live without masks, to be coherent and brave, unique, and exceptional creatures with each of our “stripes”.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.