Indulgence, Responsibility, and Audience

What is it about the presence of other people, about having an audience, that gives us permission to indulge ourselves? Is it simply that somewhat illicit indulgences are more fun when shared with someone else? Is it that we crave outside permission, so we can point to someone else and say, “But they said it was okay, too!”? Is it a self-preservation mechanism, trying to save us from ourselves by only allowing indulgence on special occasions?

I ask because I now have Häagen-Dazs ice cream in my freezer, and it would never have ended up there if I hadn’t been grocery shopping with company over the weekend. I have hot fudge to go on top of it, too. I’m amused by the way the mere presence of another person has changed my own actions. For me, I think part of it is the thrill of convincing someone else to be complicit, in gaining a “partner in crime,” in creating a brief sort of naughty bond of conspiracy against the societal idea of what’s good for us. I mean, we spend our entire childhoods trying to convince other people, in this case, our parents or other adults, to give us things we want. Didn’t there end up being some satisfaction gained from simply the act of convincing the other person to your point of view, aside from getting whatever it is you were arguing for? Doesn’t there still?

I actually discovered a sad thing about being an adult. There’s no one to convince. There’s no challenge to trying to convince someone you should stay home sick, if you’re the only one there to convince. It’s just a question: Should I go to work today or not? Blah. No, “Can I convince mom and dad? Could I get the whole day off? Should I try to go for the morning and then call to get picked up at lunch? Would that have a better chance of convincing? Can I make myself look really pale? How pitiful do I need to be?” Just, “Should I go or not? Will I get paid? Can I make it through the day? Do I want to deal with the work that will pile up in smaller pieces while feeling bad, or all at once when I think I’ll feel better?” That’s no fun. That’s just logic and being responsible and boring. I didn’t miss more than maybe 4 classes during all of college for illness, because I would always decide to just go and get it over with. I missed so many days of 6th grade I nearly failed based on poor attendance, because the challenge of convincing my parents I should stay home was more fun than school.

Maybe I just had less grasp of the consequences then. On the other hand, there’s the food issue. Left to my own devices, my grocery shopping is very boring. I get healthy, easy, boring food. I don’t have lots of snacks. But when there’s someone else there? It’s so much fun to convince them to go along with me in getting desserts. Would I really want schmancy ice cream if I was shopping by myself? Probably only if I was in a really bad mood, otherwise, nah. Don’t need it, why bother? But with another person, suddenly, that food is fun! It’s not suddenly healthier for me, it’s just more fun, and kind of wicked. But the wickedness doesn’t tempt me when I’m alone.

So does the presence of other people make me less responsible than I am on my own? Sometimes. Sometimes it works the other way. On my own, I can’t make myself get out of bed in the morning if I don’t need to. But if I’m sharing a room with someone, or staying over at someone else’s house, I feel I have to be more responsible about getting up at a “reasonable” hour, making the bed, doing the dishes promptly, vacuuming, being helpful.

In the end, it seems, having an audience changes us. This seems obvious in some ways, but insidious and surprising in others. Does anyone else have a particular way that having an audience changes their actions, for good or ill?

I’m off to go have some ice cream now.


8 Responses to Indulgence, Responsibility, and Audience

  1. B Barron says:

    Company in the house is about the only time I have ANYTHING in my fridge! I prefer the “pre-stock for house guests” method of shopping, justifying (and that’s exactly how I think of it) the purchase of such forbidden comestibles as ice cream, bacon and potato chips to carry us festively through the visit. So for me, it’s not that I need a partner in crime, I just need a reason to commit one.

    What flavor is the ice cream? I’ll be back on Friday to help you finish it off.

  2. Dana says:

    B, I’m glad someone else understands!

    The ice cream is black raspberry chip. I don’t know that it will last until Friday. I may not have bought it for myself, but now that I have it, I’ll eat it!

  3. Mary says:

    I’m having just the opposite situation right now. I’m spending a little while on my own while my husband is out of the country on business. I’m actually being more healthy about food, perhaps due to having nobody to rebel against and being able to do my version of healthy, but everything else has gone straight to hell. The lawn needs to be mowed, I amazingly seem to be able to create a whole dishwasher’s worth of dirty dishes every day, I strew newspapers, magazines, and mail about like a madwoman and watch really, really horrible TV. I have no partner in crime but am wallowing in squalor. It would not be that hard to put the things on the bathroom sink away, but I don’t. The bad thing is, unless someone sees it, I don’t feel bad about any of this. I think I’m more likely to be well-behaved when someone’s around.

  4. Dana says:

    Mary, seems like that’s a similar pattern to mine. People encourage more indulgent eating, but also more neatness, perhaps? No one ever comes over to my apartment, since I live so close to my parents’ house and it’s a more convenient meeting place for most of them, so I’m not at all concerned about mail and clutter, even though my dorm room in college was quite neat, since it was often also “for show.” I think I’m starting to hate mail now, though. Stupid junk mail and bills.

  5. TheGnat says:

    I’m defintely worse about keeping the house tidy since I moved in with my fiance. This is because like many 23-year-old-men, he is a slob. So while I want to tidy, I simply don’t have the energy to do more than just keep the place from turning into a classic “bachelor pad”.

    On the other hand, there were semesters at Grinnell where the only thing keeping me on my homework was a friend threating to read Kant at me.

    My food behavior seems to be unaffected by anything besides money though.

  6. Matthew says:

    I find my own food situation dependent more on how in control I feel. If I feel like I’m on top of things, I tend to eat healthier food. If I’m depressed or feel overwhelmed I sometimes forget to eat at all. It doesn’t seem dependent on whether or not people are there. I’m perfectly willing to be petulant about my own food even with guests if I’m in a foul mood.

    For cleaning, actually, now that I think of it, it’s pretty similar. The better mood I’m in, the cleaner the house. When I feel depressed or overwhelmed, I don’t bother with the cleaning, further adding to my feeling of non-accomplishment. I’ll usually put in an effort to clean for guests, but often I say to myself ‘I have a 13 month old, they’ll understand.’

  7. Nail says:

    I think it depends on how you view the person(s) you’re with. In the case of anyone who is not a fairly close friend, I would guess most people would try to present themselves as more together and responsible than they really are. But when with folks with whom we feel at home, I’m thinking the reaction is more likely to tend toward the “camaraderie of illicit indulgence” that you pointed out.

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