Masks, blindfolds, hats, and armour

We wear different hats according to the roles we are asked, or choose, to perform. Some of these roles also involve masks, which conceal our true feelings and views on the activities and tasks we undertake.

Some work roles require us to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and clothing, while for many, just wearing ‘corporate’ dress or uniform is a form of psychic protection. The premise is that this ‘armour’ protects us from being treated disrespectfully, or in some cases, being found to be ‘imposters’.

So too with the environments in which we perform certain roles and functions. We shape and choose them whenever possible so that they are fit for purpose and safe.

Various psychological models offer us sets of personas we can identify with or assign to those we interact with. Some of us mistakenly attach ourselves to these labels as if we have been branded with a label that permanently defines and proscribes what and how we are able to achieve anything.

One of the things that always appealed to me about de Bono’s 6 thinking hats was his encouragement to each of us to wear all six of the hats – or deliberative dispositions – but only one at a time.

Personality archetypes such as those offered by Jung, Myers-Briggs, DISC, HBDI, and the Enneagram can also be thought of as collections of mindsets and dispositions that we can ‘wear’ in certain situations. This is not dissimilar to us choosing a role model and setting out to emulate the positive qualities we associate with that person (as we perceive them); “putting on the mind” of the role model we admire – much like putting on a hat.

Tribal affiliations

Identifying with our team or organisation is similar to the way tribal communities operate, although, for most tribes, acceptance requires that you were born into them. Various sporting codes promote tribal identification by fans by urging them to buy and wear team colours, logos, mascot images, etc.

Seeing members of ‘other’ tribes as our brothers and sisters, and treating them as we would close family members (or as we would wish to be treated ourselves) is one way ethical guidance has been framed down through the centuries. All major faiths and cultures echo this ‘golden rule’. Regrettably, social media and political tribalism have enabled and encouraged extreme and abusive treatment of those with opposing or different ideas, and many have found themselves caught up in the emotional turmoil caused by attacks and counter-attacks.

The mask of anonymity

Arguably, a key factor in the polarisation of society and increased tension in our lives is the promotion of anonymity.

While privacy protections are generally a social good, the systemic support for people to hide their identity has permitted and encouraged trolling and other abusive behaviours.

In my city, we have recently seen black-clad and masked neo-Nazi groups projecting hatred and physically intimidating target groups and the wider community. Their tribalism gives them a sense of belonging to their select group, but also abdicates their personal responsibility and cloaks them in the mask and costume of their group identity. That identity ‘others’ those who they have decided are not their brothers and sisters, and encourages them to victimise and blame innocent people for their perceived sense of ‘victimhood’.

When captive to the tribe, sometimes the masks associated with that tribe act as blindfolds. They blind us to forming balanced and realistic assessments of the root causes of perceived problems. Blame is projected, often unfairly, onto other parties, and personal accountability and responsibility are avoided.

Heroes or villains?

Both fictional heroes and villains in popular culture sometimes wear masks. If you had never contextualised these stories you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the heroes and the villains.

Police and military officers sometimes wear the same kinds of ski masks as terrorists and criminals. Many families celebrate Halloween wearing scary masks, ‘demon‘-strating a lack of insight into the origins of the event. The mask does not always determine the motives or character of its wearer.

The side of the angels (‘good guys’ wearing white hats or wings) and the side of the demons (‘bad guys’ wearing black hats or wings) are labels often assigned to conflicted parties. Each sees the other as the ‘bad’ guy of course. There is a saying (apparently of German origin) referring to a person as being a ‘street angel and house devil’. In this case, the person treats different people very differently e.g. being the perpetrator of domestic violence while presenting a friendly and benign face to the rest of the community.

Joseph Campbell‘s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968), presented the concept of the monomyth, sometimes called ‘the Hero’s Journey’. The monomyth posits that, regardless of culture, location, or temporal setting, we are each engaged in a life journey in which various comparable stages and challenges are experienced. To the extent those challenges are met on the journey, our hero returns home with insights and perspectives for which both they are their community are richer. Every story is unique, but certain consistent themes can be discerned.

This is true of nonprofit organisations as much as it is for individual ‘heroes’.

Behind the mask

We are cautioned not to judge others by their appearance, but we do it all the time. We do it based on numerous ‘signals’, including body shape, posture, voice, skin colour, hair colour, accent, clothing, jewelry, and/or technical bling. We also do it in social media when we associate people with certain trigger words or events.

Member/client/user personas or avatars have been widely used in recent years to break down the use of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to communications and service design. While this segmentation is generally a good thing, it still runs the risk of masking the person we aim to serve or communicate with.

We know that beneath the surface of every individual, there is a complex human being, with many layers and depths. Despite this, we are too often disposed to treat them as the human equivalent of a tweet. This is treating fellow human beings with similar superficiality to our social media treatment of issues – where too often we explore kilometers wide but mere millimeters deep. Deep dives seem to have become more rare, whether it’s the analysis of wicked problems or relating to other members of our human family.

Organisational structures may also be treated as masks in some circumstances. Generally, a corporation is treated as a separate legal ‘person’. In some legal liability situations however, a court may use its powers to ‘pierce the corporate veil‘ – to treat the rights or duties of the corporation as those of its shareholders (and maybe, in the case of a nonprofit, its stakeholders).

Shared existential concerns

American Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom‘s Four Givens (death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness) describe the ultimate existential concerns (or challenges) of all human beings. He was not the first or only author to draw attention to these human preoccupations, nor are his four givens the only set of ultimate concerns identified by thinkers through the ages. Nevertheless, Yalom’s recognition of the significance of these four concerns in providing therapeutic support for people facing existential pain was highly influential.

We can all benefit from recognising these shared human concerns when dealing with each other in any context. While Yalom frames the challenges as conditions warranting treatment, they also point to wellness states that are life-affirming, relationship-rich, meaningful, and responsibly ‘free’.

Our energy and moods tend to flow towards the focus of our attention. If we focus on death, isolation, and angst, we get more of the same. While not arguing for denial of negative circumstances, experience tells us that if you are stuck in a problem, you are not able to move towards the solution. Having realistically defined our problems and needs, shifting focus towards our aspirations and solutions is a necessary step towards improvements.

Behind the masks, beyond appearances, we all share the same fundamental concerns. In that sense, we all belong to the same tribe … humanity.

See also:
Thinking about thinking hats
Thinking hats for wisdom, penitence, or humiliation
Foolosophy in the boardroom
The 7th and 8th thinking hats

“Am I thinking what you’re thinking?” – Perspective taking versus perspective sharing


Thank you Dr Peter Kingsbury for pointing me to Irvin Yalom.

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