Identity is not a matter of fact – it is a fiction

I once had an elevator conversation in a hotel in Houston:

“Hi, where are y’all from?” asked the guy in the baseball cap, polo shirt buttoned to the neck, short sleeves emblazoned with car dealership logos tucked into his blue pleat-fronted Chinos, held aloft by a brown leather belt like a cooper’s hoop around the barrel of his belly. Reading the signs, you would not hesitate to stake $100 on him being Texan through and through.

“You from the UK…?” he continued, reading my Brit ‘tells’ – the middle-distance gaze, aloof (maybe pompous…) demeanour which hid the inner terror of being talked to by a complete stranger in a confined space – it’s just not the done thing where I come from.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Where from?” he continued.

“Swindon.” As we plummeted past the 8th floor.

“Hey, I’m from Portsmouth! My mum moved to the States when I was four.”

30 years in the US had completely eroded any British reference points – his identity was completely assimilated, and his genetic provenance superficially erased.

Ping. We reached the lobby.

“Have a nice day.”

“You too,” I replied.

Who we are, business or individual is not a given. We have the power to choose. Our identity definitely does not have to be a factor of our origin. In identity terms we can be anything we choose. In the case of the man in the lift – his identity was far from his origin. The facts of his provenance were completely subsumed by a new fiction.

It may be obvious, but it is worth saying that what we are and what we appear to be are only loosely connected. We have choices – do we want to be the thing we are? Do we want to appear different; do we want to be the same?

It is not the facts that define us, but it is their presentation – and truth is just a sideshow.

On many ideological, business and cultural fault lines nations and businesses compete while sharing the same origins – it is not the physical difference that fuels the competition it is the differences of presentation that define it. Something so intangible becomes so solid when projected into the desire to take market, territory and resources from neighbours who are in fact of the same family – we need to present the difference to win and justify our drive.

The US is the ultimate identity blender of our time but in the context of human history it is just another in a long line of successful nations who have projected their identity way beyond their borders and defined the identity of others – as the man in the lift unknowingly testified, it’s what successful brands do.