What Anonymity Reveals About US

July 9, 2013


His true self?

His true self?

This department store was once a North American institution. My local branch is in financial hardship, much the same as other stores with this famous name. Staff are few and indifferent. I was shopping on the children’s floor and would have loved some guidance in finding the perfect gift for my niece. Unable to locate a salesclerk, I walked over to the cash desk. A man was already waiting there with a heavy tricycle, ready to pay. Alas there was no cashier in sight. I don’t know how long he had been waiting but from his frustrated demeanor, I suspect a long time. There was a CCTV pointing at him, but evidently it was not functioning or it was unattended. After about ten minutes, the man walked out of the store, with the unpaid tricycle still in his hands. I am certain he is not a habitual thief because he waited a long time for the chance to pay. I do not believe he saw me hovering behind him, and even if he did, it was of no importance to him because I was a stranger. I think he only stole because no one was watching. He was an anonymous man in an anonymous store with anonymous personnel.

I wonder, did his true personality come through because there were no accountability, no consequences?

I did not steal anything from that store, despite this man’s carefree getaway. I have never shoplifted in my entire life, though there might have been countless opportunities. Partly it is because I am the son of a shopkeeper, but mostly it is because I live by my conscience. I do not believe I am ever alone because I am there watching. I have to live with myself (and I am my toughest critic). For me that trumps all laws and all penalties.

I find it fascinating that in this age of internet, when blogs are ubiquitous, people are able post their opinions, their comments without revealing their identity. It seems to give them permission to be rude, to be offensive, to insult people whom they will never meet or know personally. Isn’t it ironic then, that because of  the cloak of anonymity these people are actually revealing more about their deepest personalities than they ever would to a co-worker, a friend or partner?

A friend of mine is single and hating it. She started looking for romance on the internet. She tells me there is a whole subculture of anonymous dating, and most of it is lewd, uncivil and disrespectful. Men lie about their age, their looks, even their location. They certainly lie about their intentions. After a number of times being stood-up, she ceased her experiment with the internet dating. “Why are men such jerks,” she exclaimed. Were it not a rhetorical question, I would answered: It is because these men are anonymous. No one will hold them accountable for their bad manners. (And they don’t live with a conscience.)

I find the same when dealing with bureaucrats. A friend had contacted City Hall by telephone and the clerk had no problem in fobbing him off without helping. I suggested he show up in person. When he looked her in the eye, stated his problem one person to another, she could not do enough. I know e mails are the main means of communication but I still prefer face to face. I find people behave better, are more courteous when the cloak of anonymity is removed. I suppose this is the reason why people in small towns are more civil than in large metropolises.

In my volunteer work I hear and observe so much of people’s secret selves because as a volunteer I am anonymous and the clients feel no accountability. Patients may put on masks for their families but they confide in me, they have permission to feel lousy, to show their true feelings because I hold no expectations of them. (On the other hand, sometimes the homeless guys show me their worst sides because I am not a social worker or shelter staff).

For me the most precious time of day is upon waking. I try to stretch that brief time before I am this guy or that guy, my day’s roles are yet undefined. Alone in my bed I am with myself and no one else to judge me. Nothing to become, no expectations. This is the time to observe my true self. Over time, I have lost some of my dependence on the approval of others. As a teenager I used to look at myself in the mirror to see if I liked myself. Now I look at myself when I am alone (without a mirror) to see if I still like myself.

I was once told that if you want to see a man’s real character, watch him in small things. I disagree. If you want to see a man’s real character, watch him when he thinks he is alone.

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