The Social Chameleon Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Social Chameleon

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A social chameleon is an individual who has the ability to enter social situations and blend in by adopting or mimicking the social norms displayed by the other participants in the situation. A social situation could be defined as a gathering of members of a society. A society is any collection of entities where interactions happen and connections exist between the individual members. Thus a football team is a society, as is a company, a country and a hobby club. Particularly interesting societies have been created through Internet technology - chat rooms, news groups, message boards, h2g2, to name a few.

A social chameleon will adopt and reflect the mood and sentiment of the situation and suppress their own. A chameleon will synthesise an opinion or position from observing those displayed by others in the situation, and forget that position when the social situation is left. The ultimate objective of the social chameleon is to blend into the social situation without disturbing that situation.

By its nature, this behaviour is unobtrusive and hard to identify or isolate.


The social chameleon has an advantage entering many situations - by adopting the rules observed a quick integration into the society is assured. But this can also be a disadvantage. For example, if the society rules that initiates must describe themselves, the chameleon has no context in which to place the answer. Non-chameleons typically have no problem with this sort of situation, but the chameleon finds it hard to come up with the answer that will most make him or her seem to fit in. Here is the crux of the chameleon's makeup - the urge to blend in, to fit in. And the dilemma is it cannot be done without learning the context of what it is that needs to be blended in with.

It can be argued that all members of a successful society share this characteristic to a varying degree. It provides for a much more effective functioning of that society. Natural selection, assuming of course that large, diverse, non-homogenous societal structures are a 'good thing', would favour a social chameleon's traits. Peer pressure, rejection and shunning all seem to have the desired effect to reinforce strong abilities as a social chameleon.

There are many separate societies that an individual has to participate in. Each is distinct and requires a different set of rules and modes of participation. Some societies are as small as two participants, and others are as large as all living individuals1 on a planet. To be a successful member of each society, the individual has to learn the rules for each. And these rules could be formal, written rules, or informal verbal rules, traditions, etiquette, or even a declared absence of rules. In the case where no rules are admitted to by the society, then a set of rules is inherited from the spawning society and implicitly used. Ultimately, the set of rules for the planetary society would apply.

Depending on the number of societies that are interacted with, a very large number of possibly contradictory rules needs to be absorbed and deployed, each set separate.

The process of acquiring these sets of rules is dictated by the society that is being joined. There could be a list of rules provided as a service to new members. There could be an apprenticeship period, an introduction or initiation rite. Or there could be nothing - just figure it out. Life is a bit like that, viewed objectively. You're born, and it's - well, you figure it out. Hopefully your immediate social circle (aka your family) gives you a bit of a head-start here.

Non-chameleons will make up a consolidated set of rules that with small adjustments are used in all situations. This set of rules is essentially who they are, what they are and how they behave in any given situation. And each individual will have a different set of rules.

While chameleons will also have a set of rules, they are more prone to adjust or abandon them in new situations, and try to adopt new ones that are gleaned form the situation. Chameleons have no problems with adopting contradictory rules for different situations - the need to blend in is paramount.

If the situation has few participants, then there are few observations that can be made. Then the chameleon has to use a backup strategy - normally do nothing and observe.

Distinctive Traits

In any communication:

  • Will not be argumentative unless that is the context of the social gathering
  • Tends to see many sides of an argument
  • Seeks consensus or joins with the majority
  • Does not volunteer information readily
  • Will appear to be knowledgeable on the subject, or at least in agreement with the consensus
  • Appears friendly

When interacting orally:

  • Will mimic the accent of the surrounding participants, if confident of pulling it off
  • Copy the tone and inflection of what is being said

Written communications:

  • Uses words carefully
  • Adopts the writing style of the correspondents
  • Will read many subtleties and interpretations into what is being communicated
  • Is prone to lengthy asides

How to Recognise

A social chameleon has a few weaknesses. These can be used to recognise them. The simplest way to identify one is to ask a question that has no prior context, and which requires an answer that would identify the chameleon as belonging to some society or other. For example asking 'where are you from?' when you first come in contact with a chameleon will typically result in an evasive answer. If you do get an answer then it is probably multifaceted. This is done in the hopes that the requestor will find at least one aspect of the answer satisfactory.

Here is a specific case:

'Where are you from?'
'Well, in one sense the last place I was at before being in this country was Holland, but I also am from Manchester University and ...'

Other techniques are to try and place the chameleon in the spotlight. If you succeed in doing this (unlikely) then the result will be a mimicking of what has been done before in the same scenario. If you prevent the chameleon from having prior knowledge of the scenario - thus depriving him or her of the information to be as others have done - then you will have a traumatised social chameleon on your hands. Be ready with whatever your social situation prescribes to calm and restore individuals in this state - a beer, a really good cup of tea, a back door exit, whatever. Be sure to do whatever you think is normal for your particular social situation in that circumstance, not what you think the chameleon actually needs.

What to do if... suspect you have been interacting with a chameleon

Reflect on what you have learned - most likely the subject matters were of your own choosing and no actual connection was made with the chameleon. That is not to say that the information you have gained is not valuable. It is just that no significant change in the social relationship between you and the chameleon will have occurred. want to befriend a chameleon

Be ready for a long, hard struggle. Perhaps you will never be. Learn the characteristics of the chameleon and play to these. To get past the acquaintance stage is a difficult process and requires dedication. The most successful means would be to create or be in a very similar situation to the chameleon. This situation has to be new to the chameleon. By providing the template on which the chameleon can base responses, you will create a strong bond and loyalty in the chameleon. But beware, the person you uncover under the chameleon may not be the person you thought you were befriending. And by the chameleon's nature, there will always be a reflection of yourself in any interactions between the two of you. want to employ a chameleon

It will be difficult to get a real feel for the enthusiasm for the job. A chameleon will strive to please any boss and will do the work required. The trick is to get the chameleon on a job or project he is fired up about, and this is a hard thing to fathom, as he will reflect and adopt the attitudes of his co-workers and peers. want to love a chameleon

This is a very tricky one. Love is fickle and rules of love are very squishy. A chameleon will find it hard to express love in any original manner. One measure of success in your endeavour to love a chameleon is if there is originality in the chameleon's expressions or responses to that love. But be prepared for many frustrations - the chameleon is still bound to those instincts of adaptation and mimicking. There will be situations where those instincts will overshadow the love you are nurturing, and the desire to blend into a new social situation will override any rules of love that you two have created. Do not demand that your new rules have to take precedence over those. Better to work with your chameleon to develop new rules that you two, as a couple, will employ when encountering social situations. Try to foster and create a new body of rules that define the couple's interactions. But when your chameleon is out alone, expect a relapse to those old behaviours. want to hate a chameleon

Why bother? Hate is such a drain on your energy and well-being, it's not really worth it. But if you really, really must know...

Hating a chameleon is hard work. The essence of a chameleon is to reflect and fit in with whatever societal situation is present. So at some level the hate you foster is really a hatred for the society the chameleon is in. As such, you are not hating an individual, but a group of people, or worse, a body of ideas and rules. This is even more futile. Or if you took violent offence at something a chameleon said, be ready to find that what was said is totally forgotten by the chameleon, or not actually the position held, if you can even establish what that might be. Read the earlier sections on how chameleons operate, and you might realise that what you are hating is a fa├žade that shimmers and changes with the situation. A hard target to maintain. want to upset a chameleon

Now why would you want to do such a thing, upsetting such harmless creatures who only want to blend in, unnoticed?

Well, actually, there is your answer - make notice of the chameleon, do not let him or her blend in. Change the rules and keep the situation fluid. In conversation, change the subject randomly and unexpectedly. Personal attacks probably will not work, but arguments that show the chameleon up as an outsider will. An upset chameleon might leave the situation and not re- enter, but it also depends what the norm is for the society you are carrying on in.

1Or even dead individuals, if certain belief systems are correct.

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