It’s a rare opportunity to be a blank page. Some will almost never experience it; others are addicted to it. There are the thrill and fear of new beginnings attached to being a blank page. For some it has the taste of freedom, for others, it’s spiced with stress and pressure.
What I’m describing usually happens when you enter a new community: Moving to a new place, joining a new club, getting a new job. Going abroad to study is an especially blank case. I like to use the metaphor of an untouched white piece of paper to talk about our identity in a new community. To understand this literally, imagine everyone running around with a sheet of paper glued to their back. When meeting someone new, after having your first conversation, you take out a pen and write a short summary, some keywords on their sheet. These words describe who you perceive them to be, including hard facts as well as subjective observations of their personality.
This way of labeling each other is something I would never promote. In a less literal way, it’s constantly happening though. Within seconds of meeting a new person, our efficient monkey mind labels them with facts and impressions, applies stereotypes and compresses it to an image that will be continuously updated after every encounter.
You might say: “But Jakob, in real life we can’t read what others have written on your back”. Indirectly, I believe we can though. Interacting with members of our groups we always give hints about our short summary on their paper. Our tone of voice and the words we use indicate to others what we would scribble to describe the person we’re talking to. For instance, when my friend Lukas from Landshut talks to me everyone else will know that I understand Bavarian dialect, that I like math and that I’m a curious person. My page is full in the math building of TU Munich where I’ve spent many days with Lukas and my math gang.
Designing a new sheet
understood the concept of the identity
sheet, we can talk about when it’s blank. It doesn’t take long for our page
to be filled with words and drawings, so the blank period is short in general.
Coming to Northwestern’s Campus 6 weeks ago was an especially blank moment. No student knew me here, not even the second exchange student from Munich. Almost no US resident had ever seen me and those who had live far away, in different states. Furthermore, my culture is different from the local one, which means that a priori there’s less information available about me. People have stereotypes about Germany but not that many about Austria, so even preinstalled images won’t help them to know me faster.
This situation opened a playground for me: As no one knew better, I could pretend to be anyone. Not that I’m a particularly good actor. Every human being, I believe, however, has the skill of showcasing parts of their personality while hiding others. I had the choice between being the nerd, the party guy, the social dude, the crazy wag or the lonely kid. During the first two weeks, I ended up becoming the “event leader” for my group of international friends. Hosting several parties in my room, people started calling me on my phone to come over and even bring three friends of theirs. This was an identity I’ve never had before, and it was a lot of fun.
While our sheet is blank, we have a unique opportunity to influence quite strongly what people will write on it – much stronger than when there are some notes already. Back in high school, everybody had known who I was for eight years. Everybody’s expectations shaped my behaviors which in turn confirmed their short summary on my sheet. It’s an automatism built into our brains. The odds of changing your long-time image are low while shaping a blank page is relatively easy. There’s a certain freedom related to being able to choose who you want to be to others. Of course, wise minds tell us that other’s perceptions shouldn’t influence our sense of identity. In my view, this is almost impossible to overcome though. We’re wired in a way that leaves the blank page our only opportunity to fully influence who we want to be seen as.
Being a blank page seems to be the holy grail when it comes to designing your own identity. Always wanted to be someone else? Just go abroad and set the scene!
This is not how the world works though, at least not for me. We humans, I believe, don’t have the energy to maintain a completely unusual identity for very long. Despite all, we’ll still be shaped by the same beliefs, values, and habits as before and they’ll make us end up being the same person to a significant extent.
When classes started at Northwestern, I observed myself transforming into the same Jakob I used to be in Munich. The same study habits, the same joys and worries about math. In the Northwestern Volleyball team, which I’m part of, I acted the same way as back in high school, when I was playing in a club in Salzburg. During the first weeks, my brain was overwhelmed with the English language – understanding Statistics, shouting the right commands on the Volleyball court. In these situations, my reactions and interactions became more automatic. My brain didn’t bother to maintain the “party leader” status, it just did what it’s used to. Only yesterday, four weeks into the academic quarter, I was hosting a party in my room again. It’s taken a while to overcome old pages from Munich or Salzburg.
In the end, I believe we shouldn’t worry about our pages. It’s perfectly fine if they influence us or if they’re full of scribbled texts, drawings, and poems. What we can work on is the page we post on our back ourselves. The way we perceive, treat, love and hate ourselves. This is our most powerful tool to influence what others will write about us.
I admit to being addicted to the thrill of being a blank page. Back in Munich two years ago, now here in the US. The experience of the first weeks is like flowing in an ocean of joy and energy. Still, this ocean is exhausting to swim in. And I guess I can live quite well with densely filled pieces of paper on my back.