Don’t Be a Hyacinth: The Danger of Letting Others Set Your Standards

by | Apr 26, 2024 | Art & Culture, Lifestyle

Have you ever put yourself into an awkward situation because you were trying to impress someone? Perhaps you exaggerated on a date and sounded boastful. Perhaps you got caught embellishing a story to a group of friends. Perhaps you got into a conversation on a complex topic and couldn’t hold your own—but blustered on as though you knew what you were talking about. 

This kind of behavior can lead to all kinds of trouble. Distorting the truth to impress people can cause us to lose touch with reality as we build up a fake image of ourselves that we then have to keep consistent. Sometimes we even start to believe our own exaggerations. Worse, we become dependent on other people’s evaluations of us—instead of evaluating ourselves by our own standards—for our sense of self-worth. That makes us even more vulnerable to painful embarrassment when our attempts to impress others fail.

The folly of such behavior is brilliantly depicted in the 1990s British sit-com Keeping Up Appearances. It follows Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced bouquet, as she regularly reminds everyone from the priest to the postman), a social climber obsessed with her image and reputation, and her dejected husband Richard, who struggles to maintain his dignity as Hyacinth ropes him into her schemes and embarrasses everyone with her attempts to appear wealthy, well-connected, and important. For example, she frequently boasts about the amount of mail she receives (“Be sure to tell everyone we received 112 Christmas cards!”), invites anyone important she meets to one of her “candlelight suppers” (which nobody wants to attend and which always end in disaster), and always answers the telephone by singing, “The Bucket residence, the lady of the house speaking!”

In one scene, Hyacinth is on her way to see her sisters, but must rely on her neighbor Elizabeth to give her a ride. This creates a problem for Hyacinth: Her sisters are poor, unkempt, and live in a run-down house in a shabby neighborhood. Letting Elizabeth see them and their house would, in Hyacinth’s mind, spoil her image of respectability, so she lies to Elizabeth about where her family lives and directs her to a more up-market street nearby. When Elizabeth drops Hyacinth off at the address, Hyacinth pretends to walk into a stranger’s house, but Elizabeth doesn’t immediately leave, and hilarity ensues as Hyacinth struggles to keep up the act:

Hyacinth Takes A De-Tour | Keeping Up Appearances

Hyacinth is an outstanding example of what philosopher Ayn Rand called a second-hander—“one who regards the consciousness of other [people] as superior to [her] own and to the facts of reality.”1 Hyacinth, rather than set her own standards for success and virtue, judges herself according to how she thinks others regard her social status, then ends up in a constant state of stress, panic, and disarray (played for laughs in the show) as those attempts come into conflict with reality. This only intensifies her desire to improve how others see her, causing yet more trouble.

It’s not the case that it’s always wrong to care about what someone else thinks of you. If someone you respect for being a moral and virtuous person admires or disdains you, that can be a sign that you are or aren’t making the right choices in life and should reconsider them. But you should choose who you respect based on your own standards, and evaluate yourself according to those standards, only looking to others for indications that you are (or are not) living by them. 
The character of Hyacinth Bucket is a perfect encapsulation of what it means to be second-handed. Although watching Keeping Up Appearances is rewarding enough for its comedy value alone, it also provides an excellent reference point for what dependence on the opinions of others looks like so that we can avoid it in our own lives.

  1.  Ayn Rand, “The Argument from Intimidation,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 141. ↩︎

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