On lanyards and personal identity

A friend recently observed that the current trend for wearing lanyards with ID cards seems to have aspects of identity performance: a way of visually indicating that you have a job, that you belong somewhere. That’s certainly true, but it can be rather complicated.

In 2012, I was working at a London university which had a noticeable occupational divide regarding lanyards and ID cards: Admin staff wore them, faculty did not. Both groups used their ID cards about as often as each other, but faculty generally carried them in wallets or pockets.

Then came the London 2012 Olympics. Before the event, orders came down that everyone on staff– regardless of pay grade– had to wear their ID card on a lanyard at all times, for security reasons.

Well, I thought, this will be interesting.  Because I was certain this divide was one of those things that isn’t a conscious part of your identity performance, but that is important nonetheless, and when you disrupt those, people are often uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain (Kate Fox, in Watching The English, is worth reading for how she explores and exploits this sort of social reaction). So I decided to watch what happened.

Sure enough, faculty dutifully put their ID cards on lanyards… and carried them in their hands. Or pockets. Or put them on just long enough to get from their office to the classroom before taking them off and leaving them to the side.

For my own part, even being aware of all this… I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable myself when I put on my lanyard. Like I was dressing up as something I wasn’t. I noticed that, like all the faculty, I was taking it off as often as I could. I knew why, but it wasn’t stopping me doing it.

What’s to take away from all this? Partly that organisational identity’s a complicated, organic thing that can be expressed in unexpected ways. But also that even something as seemingly neutral as wearing a lanyard can take on significance, and, when that happens, it’s a good idea to pay attention.