Open the Iris: How Stargate can help us control our social filters

You know how some people just say whatever they’re thinking, no matter how inappropriate? It’s like their internal Stargate is open and they just let anything through. And some of that stuff can be as harmful as the goa’uld.

Most of us have an ‘iris’, a social filter, that lets us control what comes out of our mouths. Sometimes, this iris is locked closed, though, without us even knowing it.

In this article we’ll look at this social filter and ways to control so it opens and closes whenever you want it to.

Open the Iris

This social filter most of us have – I’ll call it an iris for this article – keeps us from putting out foot in our mouth. It’s what lets you say “Thanks, it looks like you put a lot of effort into this” when your aunt gives you an itchy home-made jumper for your birthday.

The iris lets us protect ourselves and others by closing off our internal Stargate for a bit while we check if it’s okay to let this thought through.

For the uninitiated, the the iris closes over the Stargate to prevent unwanted people, things, bombs, aliens, etc. from coming through without permission.

In Stargate they’d always have the iris closed, then they’d receive SG-1’s IDC – Iris Deactivation Code – and know it was okay to open it and let their guard down.

It’s the same with our iris.

Here’s another perfect example from Stargate Atlantis. Rodney McKay is being his usual unfiltered self and John Sheppard acts as a filter for him.

It’s important to note that you can be too open or too closed. Here’s why.

Too Open

Just to clarify, this is not about lying.

It’s about taking people’s feelings into account and being honest and constructive instead of destructive. It’s about not hurting people.

If your iris is always open you can really offend or hurt people. It’s no good.

Once, my mum gave my wife a plate with a flower on it. I had often heard my wife being annoyed at that particular type flower due to it being on car stickers, souvenirs and products absolutely everywhere. I was with family, so my iris was open, and I laughed and foolishly said “Oh, she hates that flower”.

Mum came to me later and – with her iris filtering her thoughts quite a bit – she diplomatically told me that she had been really hurt by what I said and my sister had been surprised by it too. She told me that she knew dad’s side of the family was open and we’d been taught to say what we think, but that I had hurt her. I apologised and returned to the original thought to tell her we really appreciated the gift, and it was a nice plate, and that my wife didn’t really hate that flower, she had just seen it around a lot. But not on plates and this one was nicely stylised and matched our colour theme.

We worked things out and patched things up. I was lucky mum was open with me, or I may not have realised what I had done.

It’s your reputation on the line, too, when you don’t filter your thoughts. You often need to be diplomatic. Even if your original thought is true, it may not be worth speaking aloud. What value does it add? Does it take something away? And if it is worth speaking aloud, the way you’ve worded it in your head may not be the best way to say it. If you just think for a bit more, you can probably come up with a more constructive way to say it.

Too Closed

On the flip side, if your iris is always locked tight, it can also be detrimental.

Have you ever been at a meeting where you wanted to say something, but only thought of the perfect wording hours later? Have you ever wished you were more spontaneous? Do you worry over everything you say or type, trying to make sure it’s perfect and couldn’t possibly be offensive to anyone in any way ever in the universe???

When your iris is closed so much, it can be hard to engage socially as much as you’d like. You can come across as hesitant, shy, uncertain. You can also miss out on chances, when you’re too busy filtering to speak up at the time.

Gaining Control

Too open or too closed. Neither are good. You need control over your iris.

Here are some keys to effective use of your iris:

  • Be aware of your social filter
  • Know the process of your filter
  • Give it a name and image, like the iris
  • Focus on it when you don’t need to
  • Look out for other people using theirs
  • Know that each person has a different default
  • That default can be different in different situations
  • Anonymity can dramatically change a filter
  • Open up when you’re in safe environments

Now, let’s explore each of those a little.

Being aware of the existence of your social filter is the most important thing. And it’s easier to recall something that has a name or concept. Hence, imagining it as the iris.

Knowing the process is important, too. It’s basically this:

  1. Initial thought – “Ugh, what an ugly, itchy-looking jumper”
  2. Closed iris blocks the thought from being spoken
  3. Second thought – “But she means well and she worked hard on it”
  4. Check if thought is okay – I think of this as checking the IDC
  5. Repeat steps 3-4 as needed if the thought needs more filtering
  6. Open the iris to allow passage of thoughts
  7. Spoken thought – “You must have worked hard on this! Thanks!”

It might work a bit differently for you.

You may not need to repeat steps 3-4. Or you may get stuck in that loop for several minutes and not truly be happy with what you’re going to say even when you do end up opening the iris.

Focusing on your iris when you don’t need to will help you remember to use it later. For instance, when you’re hanging out with friends, you’ll probably automatically open the iris. So, next time you are, pay attention to what you’re saying. See if your thoughts are leaping directly from your brain to your mouth or being filtered first.

Keep an ear out for other people using their iris – or not. It’s often very easy, and painful, to notice someone who’s iris is jammed permanently open.  Whenever I encounter one of these people, it’s a stark reminder to use my own iris where appropriate.

We all have our default iris setting. For some of us, it takes a long time for it to open – we have to think and make sure our words are perfect before speaking – and for others we swiftly filter our thoughts and speak more quickly, for ill or good.

That setting is different in different circumstances. For instance, when with close friends, you’ll open your iris more. In an interview, it’ll probably be tightly closed and monitored. When you’ve had a few drinks, it might open up again. Same when you’re really angry. Be aware of this.

Online, when anonymous, your filter may change dramatically. Some people, like trolls, don’t filter anything online. They just say whatever comes to mind. Or, they filter things in a perfect way to bait people into engaging.

Same thing, if you get riled up by trolls, you might open your iris without realising, or you might feel that it’s okay to say whatever comes to mind because you’re online and you’re anonymous.

Remember, there are real people at the other end. Be kind.

It can pay to open your iris in some situations, though, like in the safety and collaboration of coaching or counselling. When I had just begun seeing my coach, she noticed that I was filtering my thoughts and told me to – in the safety of our coaching relationship – let down my gatekeeper. Or, as I now say, open my iris.

It took trust, but I found it paid off. I became more aware of my iris and with her I kept it open so my first and most honest thoughts came out. It helped her coach me better and I got more out of the relationship because of it.

And that should be a good start to using your iris. Now, to wrap up.

Now that you’re aware of your iris, you can start using it to help you make the most of social situations. You may find you can open up more easily in situations where you want to, now that you’re aware of your iris. You may be able to keep the iris closed when you’re getting mad or emotional. I’ve found that just being aware of it and naming it has given me a lot more control and made my life better for it. I hope you find that too.

Open Chat

What do you call your social filter? How do you imagine it? Do you have an anecdote of a time you wish you – or someone else – had been better able to control their filters? Be aware of your filter and share with us in the comments below.


When Jarrod's not writing about personal development through pop-culture, he's helping people like you reach their goals through fun, empowering coaching.

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