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Autobiographical Memory and Identity Updating - page 4 / 19

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they were actually 60, people tended to reference their felt identity in relation to biographical landmarks or past “chunks” of their lives. Their current internal identity was framed periods such as “when they were in college” or “when their kids were in middle-school” or “when they lived in a certain house.”  The tendency to use the past tense suggested the paradox of identity updating. People know they are getting older, that time is passing.  People acknowledge this passage of time, even as they appropriate a past biographical frame to ground their current sense of self.  

Of course these two selves are not totally independent, but are always in a kind of dialog with one another.   Our intuitions about our ourselves are shaped in part by numerous kinds of chronologically based feedback– “chrono-cues” that insistently remind us of the passage of time.

Social Chrono-Cues

Less obvious but equally important are the chrono-cues that are built into social interactions. The social scaffolding of current identity includes markers for numerous components of an identity such as marital, professional, and reproductive status.  The most common cues, however, are those that signal one’s relative age.  In the West, the celebration of birthdays is the most common social marker of age.  As one gets older, annual birthday celebrations  generally become more muted as if to blunt the social recognition of the passing of time, and the ritual emphasis shifts to the celebration of  “landmark birthdays” marking the decade rather than the year.  For the octogenarian (and older), the celebrations may well shift back to marking annual birthdays, as if living another year were now equal in significance what the decade represented earlier on.  

For children aging is socially marked not only by birthdays but by marked changes in ritual like changing bedtimes, or (for teenagers) the acquisition of a fake ID for buying alcohol, or the birthday that means one no longer needs a fake ID.  Recently I was taken aback when, for the first time in my life, I was offered the senior discount at the local movie theater. I was even more surprised to discover that the offer was perfectly reasonable and that I could legally take the discount.  Forms of address are very common social indices of one’s change in both age and social status.  In both address and reference “boys” become “men” and “girls” “women” or “ladies” until we are old enough to refer to ourselves as boys and girls again– this time as a kind of jocular euphemism.3   

Over the four decades I have been visiting Samoa I have been publically  “updated” in age-status by the gradually shift in the way people address me.  Over the years I have gradually evolved from  tama (boy) to tamāloa (man) to, recently,  toea’ina (old man), marking a Samoan model of my developmental life both socially and physically.  This open acknowledgment of aging (along with its physical signs such as increasing girth or grey hair) is an important kind of social scaffolding of age, and tends to decrease the gap between Observed and Intuited Selves.

In American practice this kind of public recognition of one’s aging is somewhat more muted, due to the American values of youth and productive activity.4  Thus we mark linguistically stages of aging through mature adulthood, but starting around “middle-age” we begin the process of linguistic muting of aging.  We might refer to someone as “middle-aged” or “old” but most Americans would not use such terms as forms of address. We don’t generally acknowledge old age directly.  Instead we translate terms like “old man” and “old woman” into awkward euphemisms like “seniors” or “senior citizens.” Such euphemisms only serve to highlight in a negative way the status they are intended to mask.5  The ambivalence of such

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