The Other-Directed Candidate

January 16, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

When people pluck a word or phrase from a specialized area and bring it into widespread use, they often change the meaning. “Track record,” for example, in general speech means something very different from what it means to horseplayers.*

Sociology terms that have suffered this fate include “playing a role,” which now has a negative connotation (as Robert Park said long ago, we are all always playing some role) and “significant other,” which is now a gender-neutral term for someone you’re sexually involved with. That’s a far cry from its origins in symbolic interaction.

Here’s one I hadn’t heard before. Hillary Clinton on Meet the Press last Sunday said, “I’m very other-directed. I don’t like talking about myself.”

David Riesman coined the term other-directed nearly sixty years ago in The Lonely Crowd. He used it to describe what he saw as a new character type that had arisen in response to changes in society. The nineteenth century had been dominated by the “inner-directed” type, the person who remained rigidly true to a set of internal dictates regardless of the pressures of the social or physical environment. The upper-class Englishman on safari who, even in the jungle, wears a formal dinner jacket to dinner.

By contrast, the other-directed person is guided not by an internal gyroscope but by a kind of social radar. Other-directed people pick up signals from others, and – sensitive to these external demands, needs, and strategies – adjust their course accordingly.

Riesman did not intend his analysis as part of the critique of American “conformity” so popular at the time (books with titles like A Nation of Sheep), though that’s how it was taken. People viewed the terms as moral judgments: inner-directed good (the principled individualist), other-directed bad (the unprincipled conformist).

Obviously, what Hillary Clinton meant was that she was not much given to public introspection but instead directed her attention outward towards the problems of the world. But it’s interesting, given her “track record” on a variety of issues, to look at her statement from the perspective of Riesman’s original definition.

* The track record is the fastest time for a given distance at a given track. For example, the track record for the mile at Aqueduct is 1:32 2/5, set in 1989. What people mean in everyday speech when they say, “My track record on that issue . . .” is closer to what horseplayers refer to as “past performances” – the chart of the horse’s performance in past races.

As for
track record” as popularly used, in most cases the track” could be dropped with no loss of meaning.

1 comment:

jeremy said...

I didn't know "other-directed" was from The Lonely Crowd. Things you learn reading blogs on the elliptical trainer.