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Self-Irony and the Linguistic Fashioning of Personality

It is a commonplace of the analysis of personality that language is the main ingredient in the self-fashioning of a persona. Gestures, clothing, mannerisms of all kinds contribute to this process but are ancillary to the cumulative result. “You are what you say”––or so one can safely maintain, although a distinguished Colombian philosopher of mathematics, when recently exposed to this statement, responded by countering, “You are what you are” (a notably vacuous formulation all the same).

Humor at one’s own expense (self-irony included) can be characteristic of one’s personality, and those who lack this trait often stand out in contemporary American culture––negatively, one must say, although it need not prevent such persons from succeeding in life. A total absence of the ability to ironize on oneself is part of the general lack of self-awareness (clinically: anosognosia) that is more typically characteristic of the male members of the species, but not only.

One such person in Y-H-B’s early academic experience stands out, namely a former colleague (a male Slavist), who as a young man exhibited a total absence of self-irony linguistically and of self-awareness behaviorally, then came out of the closet publicly after two failed marriages to women (N.B.!), and ended up with an endowed chair at one of America’s elite universities–– despite remaining unchanged as to personality all the while.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

3 Responses to “Self-Irony and the Linguistic Fashioning of Personality”

  • Gary Richmond says:

    You wrote: “You are what you say”––or so one can safely maintain, although a distinguished Colombian philosopher of mathematics, when recently exposed to this statement, responded by countering, “You are what you are” (a notably vacuous formulation all the same).”

    Still, I’m not sure how safely one can maintain “You are what you say,” since, as Peirce holds (and as you recently noted), we are *in* meaning, language, the *things* of the world much more than they are *in* us.

    And even restricting the analysis to language (although I’m not as certain as you seem to be that “You are what you are” is “a notably vacuous formulation” since our being is much more than our speech), we are also what we hear, what we discuss, what we read, the entire culture–which is not limited to the linguistic–within which we function, etc.

    Could valorizing the expression,”You are what you say,” possibly represent the partiality of a linguist to that sort of valuation?

    • Yes, my post does reflect my bias as a linguist, but what I meant by saying “You are what you say” is the persona you present for outward-directed communication with interlocutors. Your thoughts and your experiences are clearly reflected in “what you say” but are only presented (directly and indirectly) in speech.

  • Gary Richmond says:

    Thanks for the clarification which makes complete sense.

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