Charles Cooley: I Am What I Think You Think I Am

“I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

– Charles Cooley

The eloquence of this quote struck me the moment I chanced upon it on Facebook. Quotes, by the necessity of their short lengths, are most often reductive or easily appropriated to the reader’s preferences. This, however, is not only extremely quotable – only 7 unique words were used, with none more than 5 letters! – but also too profound to easily reinterpret (or so I think). It was only an instant later that I recognized the source author: Charles Horton Cooley. Oh yes, he’s a sociologist in the tradition of symbolic interactionism!

Charles Cooley Sociology Quote - I Am What I Think You Think I Am

An instance of Sociology hitting the heights of literature!

Charles Cooley rarely appears in the Sociology classes I took, though he has been mentioned in a few secondary readings related to symbolic interactionism. More specifically, the concept of the looking glass self. I am unable to locate where exactly this quote was cited from, but I will still try my hand at interpretation based on what I have more generally learned.

I Am What I Think I Am [Cooley: Not]

In everyday terms, this should be a highly popular opinion. On a basic level, it doesn’t matter whether you are, say, an optimist or a pessimist. Do I annoy you? Well that’s too bad, because it is who I am! To be more exact, it is who I think I am. On another level, this statement can be one of agency. Since I am what I think I am, why not just think differently? Think positive, and I will become positive!

But Mr Charles Cooley says no. You are not what you think you are. So who are you?

I Am What You Think I Am [Cooley: Not]

In everyday terms, this should be highly unpopular. It’s obvious. No one will celebrate knowing that they are a mere product of others’ opinions. If you go to class and the class bullies taunt you all day, thinking you are worthless, are you then worthless? The sad reality is that we may grow to believe it. (This is what sociologists tend to explain. It’s what we do best – annoy people.) But we shouldn’t.

Mr Charles Cooley says no, again. Just what is he on fannying about?!

I Am What I Think You Think I Am [Cooley: Yes]

Oh right, he’s into recursion. Mr Charles Cooley is flaunting his mastery of the English language with its ability to pile on new Noun-Verb pairs endlessly. It’s to his generosity that he didn’t go further. Thanks Cooley.

Okay… that was just a demonstration of how we can read all kinds of meanings into things which do not exist. More seriously, what is Cooley saying?

The focus in on one’s interpretation of others’ opinions. If you think I am stupid, that doesn’t necessarily make me stupid. If I believe your opinion is valid, then I will end up behaving in ways which reinforce that opinion. This would mirror the 2nd case (“I am what you think I am”). But if I believe your opinion is invalid, that you are just being difficult or jealous or have it difficult at home, then I will behave rather differently.

The latter case does not mirror the 1st case (“I am what I think I am”). Rather, the possibilities are quite endless. Depending on how I perceive your opinions, and how I perceive you as a person, I may ignore you, try to prove you wrong, try to put you down where you put me down, or try to show my other qualities. I may talk to my friends for support, talk to teachers and parents for advice, or talk to you or your friends to understand what’s going on.

In all of these, I am still responding to the problem that you posed, with your harsh opinion. I am never completely free. But even within this constraint, there are many possibilities. Whether these possibilities narrow or expand will depend on the responses of you and me, but more so how we each interpret the other’s intentions.

Therefore: “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

For me, this demonstrates the best of Sociology. Sociology at its base helps one to understand society. Sociology at its best helps one to reimagine the individual. This is the sociological imagination, applied to the individual. Thank you, Mr Charles Cooley.

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I Am What I Am [Cooley is silent]

Since Cooley is so cool, I decided to create a meme to go with it. But since I am not a sociologist, but playing the role of “Socio Empath”, I added two additional rows. The fourth row alludes to what lies beyond the remit of Sociology: the human spirit. That said, the sociological questioning which the Cooley quote provoked is vital. Without appreciating the ways our selves are imprinted on by our relationships with others, we can never truly be free, to discover who we can be.

The last row brooks no explanation.

Charles Cooley meme - I am what I think you think I am

Do You Know Who I Am? [Cooley is rolling in his grave]

Now, after all this stimulation, I suppose you must have a lot of interpretations of my opinions. Or more exactly, interpretations of my interpretations of Cooley’s opinions. Or most exactly, interpretations of my interpretations of Cooley’s interpretations of humans’ interpretations of others’ opinions.

So give vent and share it with your friends to distort my interpretation of public opinion!


For more reflections on quotes, follow me on Instagram @socioempath!

Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a Sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I seek to help you create freedom in everyday life, with empathy and the sociological imagination.

5 Responses

  1. Martin Manyozo says:

    I love ur explanation sir,nyc one

  2. Anonymous says:

    Very clever writing and argumentation. I enjoyed reading it thank you for sharing

  3. Kumar ankit says:

    Really enjoyed reading and perceiving it. Affected by your presentation of Cooley’s presentation of what he thinks life of a man presents to him!

  4. Ray Xavier says:

    I think of this more in the sense of the Lacanian gaze. We are beings who are looked at by others and our ideas of ourselves are formed from infancy by how we absorb that collective gaze. Put another way, the Self is other people. The opinion of one person isn’t determinative, but over time we develop an idea of how others see us, which may or may not be accurate. That imagined Self is what we think we are.

  5. Petal says:

    I appreciate your perspective, an enjoyable read

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