Ever wonder why you leave a Facebook binge feeling worse about yourself than before?
What is it about social media that causes such strong reactions within us? Well, a lot of it has to do with impression management and how we perceive the lives of others.
Impression management refers to conscious and subconscious attempts to influence the perceptions of other people about an object or thing (in this case, you) by regulating and controlling information during social interaction. Impression management is often compared to running your own broadcast channel that tries to tell the world how attractive, awesome, athletic, and smart you are, among other things.
However, impression management isn’t necessarily pretense; it’s just “selective nondisclosure”—because you will leave out certain, ahem, details so that you are portrayed in a way that is consistent with how you see (or want to see) yourself. For most athletes, this is fast, fit, competent, smart, exciting, fun, and shaggable, which may be a frequent departure from how you feel in real life (IRL).
When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s in-your-face impression management, it’s annoying precisely because you’re on the opposing team. Shrinks call this a self-evaluation threat. It sends the message that their social standing is higher than yours because they’re fitter, leaner, faster, grittier, happier (need we go on?) than you.
And it’s f*cking irritating.
Sometimes it’s really overt, such as someone telling you literally how great they are. Sometimes it’s less overt but still noticeable—when a person’s anecdotes are only about how they saved the day or were proved right. At other times, impression management can also be really subtle, as in when and where people “check in” on Facebook. Some people prefer to reverse engineer the process entirely by faking inadequacy, in order to fish for compliments or to create a personal handicap, portraying themselves as deficient in order to catch opponents off-guard and gain an advantage.
The one thing we know for certain about impression management is that we all do it—at least to some degree. And make no bones about it: It’s a performance in every sense of the word.
Technology has taken a lot of the effort out of impression management by helping us broadcast truthiness about our abilities and all-around awesomeness. Social media is a particularly grand stage for your performance because an audience is guaranteed if you have an account. With the click of a button, you can instantly pebble-dash your social network with photos, updates, check-ins, plans, trips, experiences, and mood states—the golden currency of impression management.