As children grow, they learn to speak and understand the language or languages that surround them. In a very similar way, they learn a set of societal rules: when it’s okay to speak, what to wear, what is most important, etc., etc. Typically, people learn these rules by breaking them or following them in noticeable ways. When they do so, the responses of the people around them indicate whether their actions are acceptable or not. This reinforcement, negative or positive, informs future decisions.
The learning of such expectations usually peaks as preteens and teens begin to assert their independence by increasingly seeking approval from their peers and decreasingly from their parents. The need for peer approval raises the stakes considerably: a strange kid in elementary school is a little different, but it makes little difference; as the teenage years approach and commence, eccentricity becomes frighteningly dangerous to social standing and is shunned. To the social late bloomers, such a change is startling; after all, they have been wearing sweats for years. Why does it matter now?
After a few years, the social pressures seem to diminish. It’s commonplace for an adult to say something about how difficult the teenage years are. The consensus is that, in general, as teenagers mature into adults, their socially predatory habits subside and they become responsible and reasonably compassionate. Furthermore, people begin to “find themselves” during their teenage years. They discover that what other people think doesn’t matter as much as they used to think it did and they become unconcerned with the opinions of the few remaining social aggressors; after all, does it really matter what they think? Free of the shackles of teenage barbarity, they settle into an emotionally contented life.
At least, this is the fiction that we sell to ourselves. We believe it because we want to, but also because it’s almost true. It’s the subtle distinctions that make it fiction and that require a new way of looking at things.
Many adults are still bound by societal norms. Their imprisonment is worsened by the fact that they imagine that they are free. It’s true that most adults no longer care if someone else thinks of them as a nerd, but so many adults find themselves doing what their friends do to avoid the label of “prude”. People frequently hesitate or fail to react to emergencies because other people are around; this is called the bystander effect (thanks to Miss C. for first teaching me about it) and is a well-documented phenomenon. The fact is that although adults have shaken off the social restrictions that they find most onerous, they still find themselves bound strongly, sometimes in ways that are detrimental to their own or others’ lives. I think that it is fear that keeps people from acting as they ought in these circumstances; years of conditioning have taught them that acting out of line or out of place will cause unimaginable unpleasantness. Of course, it is unusual for a person to become ostracized for acting differently. This is not the problem. The problem is that so many people think that they will be summarily punished by their peers for the audacity to deviate from social norms. An ill-defined or unknown fear is frequently far more potent – and more difficult to confront – that something well-known.
Also, the adults who are bound by social norms are so bound because they confront them ineffectively. Calling others’ opinions into question as a defense against social pressure has some effect, but people still long for approval. Furthermore, such an approach is essentially prideful: it pits one’s own self-conception against other people’s ideas. My idea can only matter more than other people’s ideas if mine is more correct. Unfortunately, it is very easy (and very common) for a person to slip into thinking that his or her own correctness comes from more intelligence, experience, etc. This becomes problematic when the prideful person is proven wrong; instead of just assimilating new information, the person’s social ease is called into question: the basis for comfort was that the people who disagreed were wrong (and probably a little crazy or at least misguided). But if one of them is right, might that person be right about something more significant? Pride is resilient, so people usually bounce back after a few days. As a result, people rarely seem to find the fault in this reasoning and continue on, contented enough of the time to get by. Furthermore, their pride only gets them past the social pressures that they consider consciously. Consequently, people think that they’re past that “adolescent” stage because they don’t care if people call them certain names anymore. However, they fail to recognize that they spend more than they would like on luxuries because they feel obligated to do so (social pressure) or that they unhappily participate in the PTA because they “have” to.
Now that I’ve described the fiction, I’ll state the truth: social norms are guidelines and not real rules. If we stick to them, no one is likely to notice or care. If we break them, people will notice and will probably react. A little experience going against the guidelines can teach us how the people around us are likely to react. We then are faced with simpler decisions: instead of choosing between what we want (with unimaginable consequences) and acquiescence, we choose between two options. One option has the consequence of possible social retribution. The other has the consequence of personal dissatisfaction.
I recommend that people define their own rules. Social norms are frequently based on good principles and can be a useful basis for establishing one’s own pattern of behavior, but they must not be used as an absolute standard. The more we learn to do what we think is right or best when it is at odds with our peers’ expectations, the more we condition ourselves to predict and accept those consequences.
Now stop reading and go practice defying expectations – and start satisfying your own.