Is ‘Chameleoning’ Subconsciously Impacting Your Social Life?

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
A few years ago, I read something that stuck with me. It talked about what true internal alignment looked like, which was when the gap decreased between the person you are when you’re with friends, family, colleagues, strangers, lovers, or yourself. Essentially, it suggested that if you can be your authentic self in whatever situation, with whoever, then you’ve achieved this balance. 
As a chronic people pleaser, it’s something that I aspire to, knowing full well that it’s out of reach. Moulding myself depending on my audience comes naturally to me. Even for those that don't have people-pleasing tendencies, adapting yourself to different social settings is usually easy — and encouraged. The way you interact with your boss shouldn’t be the way you interact with your best friend, or the way you act with your partner. Of course, that’s before taking code-switching into consideration.
This act of chameleoning, that is, altering yourself depending on the social situation, is also referred to as self-monitoring. And while it doesn't help with that elusive 'internal alignment', it’s not all bad, either. 
This week, Taylor Swift received her honorary doctorate from New York University, where she also gave the commencement speech.⁠ In it, she tells the graduates that they are all "literary chameleons".
Swift talked about how we are all writers and the way we write differs depending on the audience — the way you type on your Instagram's close friends is different to the way you talk to your boss.
"It's just the continuation of the idea that we are so many things, all the time. I know it can be really overwhelming figuring out who to be and when, who you are now, and how to act in order to get where you want to go," she says.
An outcome of the chameleon effect is mimicking other people’s gestures, behaviours, speech and mannerisms. According to research, empathetic people are more likely to engage in this behaviour — and in fact, showed increased positive interaction between the mimic and the mimicked. 
“Having that ability to adapt to the situation that you're in is actually a very functional way of living,” clinical psychologist and Headspace App’s Mental Health Expert Mary Spillane tells Refinery29 Australia. “Being able to adapt to a situation and meet the needs of that situation means that you're more likely to succeed as well.” 
It’s something all of us do, whether consciously or not. The other day I saw a TikTok where someone received the compliment, “I love your personality” to which they replied, “Thanks, I made it just for you”. Another TikTok I stumbled upon read, “Switching between the personalities you made for friends, work and family” with the sound that said, “For tonight’s entertainment, I will be playing all the parts”.
Spillane warns though that this tendency, if rooted in a desire to fit in or to be liked, can lead to stress, social anxiety and self-consciousness. “If you're in a room [with] 10 different people and you're trying to adapt to every single different person, [it’s] incredibly difficult and stressful. It can also sometimes lead to people behaving in ways that isn't actually consistent with their values,” she says, adding that it can lead to a sense of guilt.

The term chameleoning comes from the group of lizards whose colour-changing skin helps them blend in with their surroundings. It’s a survival technique, just as it is for many humans.

For some people with autism, the act of chameleoning can be a type of coping mechanism. Approximately one in 70 Australians are on the autism spectrum, with women and girls underrepresented in diagnosis statistics.
“[One] of the coping mechanisms to fit in well… is pretending to be someone else. This chameleon factor is something that a lot of us girls do because we want to fit in with the group and society in general,” Barb, a woman with ASD, previously told SBS.
“A key characteristic of [autism] is difficulty understanding social nuance and how to behave in a social setting,” Spillane explains. “People with autism will often just imitate what others are doing, as a way of fitting in and learning what's appropriate and what's not appropriate.”
The term chameleoning comes from the group of lizards whose colour-changing skin helps them blend in with their surroundings. It’s a survival technique, just as it is for many humans.
“[Chameleoning] is not all bad. It can be a really highly adaptive behaviour. But when you start to do things that aren't in line with your values, that's when it becomes problematic,” Spillane says.
She recommends examining your own habits and seeing which environments you tend to chameleon in, which may help you understand why you do it in the first place. If you’re wanting to show your more authentic self to others, she suggests doing it slowly and with people you feel safer with. For instance, gently expressing an idea or a hobby that you're not sure is going to land.  To regulate feelings of social anxiety, Spillane encourages people to do some mindfulness beforehand, so you might feel less reliant on the chameleon behaviour.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Relationships