Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Shtick That Sticks

Shtick. It's a fun word, a real mouthful, almost something you spit out instead of say.

Shtick is Yiddish for a show-business device, something done for dramatic or theatrical effect. Outside of the arc-lights, it is also defined as a 'characteristic attribute, talent or trait that is helpful in securing attention or recognition.'  It's this latter species of shtick that I'm interested in - part habit, part performance, part personality tic. 

There's plenty of literature out there on the complexity of social interactions, which describes how we use masks and facades to 'perform' our way through life. The jury's out on whether these performances are desirable and emotionally healthy, but in an imperfect world, they're certainly necessary. 

The social shtick is more than a facade or a mask. The shtick has a bit of an aw-shucks quality about it, although I'd assert it's anything but. It's not simply about maintaining a certain demeanour or selectively expressing certain parts of one's personality. It's about developing an entire act, consciously or otherwise, which draws attention to us in a very specific way and also casts the people around us in a certain light. Once we portray ourselves as the earnest ingénue / the dilettante/ the city-slicker/ the cynic / the pretend-jock/ the nice-guy, then our friends, colleagues or family members, perforce, also have to play along, whether they like the role they've been assigned or not. A shtick allows us to disarm, disengage and deflect while also dictating the terms of what should ideally be a collective performance. What good is a mask when it comes up against a routine?

The shtick is at best endearing, at worst, manipulative and disingenuous. As performers, we might enjoy the routine but eventually grow weary of it. As observers, we are sometimes complicit in the development of the act. And sometimes we just watch, slightly confused about how a conversation took a particular turn, or how we ended up looking like the ___________ in the room. Either way, whether performer or audience, I'd beware of the shtick that sticks. Like any act, it can become worn with wear, threatening to evolve from routine, into habit, into constraint.

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