Today, upon waking, I saw an ad on Instagram for a wool tee-shirt. The ad stated that washing synthetic clothing resulted in plastics going into the water ways. It depicted a young man wearing a shirt for 7 days before washing it. In other words, washing clothing less decreases our environmental impact. Really, a pretty uncontroversial statement.

Can you guess what the comment section contained? A slew of remarks about how this young man was gross for wearing a ‘dirty’ shirt, and it was no wonder he was depicted without a spouse!!

This is what I learned- smelling good is more important than protecting our waterways.

Why? Societal norms. This reminded me of being 14 all over again. I remember as one of the ‘popular’ girls, picking on others for being ‘dirty birds’ i.e. people we determined didn’t shower enough. As a result, in grade 9, I showered for 25 minutes a day. The water I wasted for the sake of societal norms!

Societal norms are defined by the OED as “a pattern of behavior that is typical or expected”. Research repeatedly reveals just how powerful social norms are (1) .They also have the power to create a massive amount of suffering. They can promote disordered eating (2). They can perpetuate violence (3). For most of us, they promote feelings of lack and insecurity. We feel anxious that we sweat too much, have too much body hair, have too little head hair, aren’t married yet, are already divorced, have too many kids, don’t have kids, don’t make enough money, on and on and on.

The cost of violating a social norm is technically being ‘kicked out’ of the group (1). However, our fear of being socially rejected is often overblown; as we magnify our ‘faults’ beyond their true nature. Further, the likelihood of rejection depends on what rule we are breaking. Often our anxiety comes from petty social rules on grooming and lifestyle choices.

Ignoring these petty societal norms gains you many benefits. You have less anxiety, spend less money on things you don’t need (but feel you have to have), and spend more time doing things that matter to you . You no longer have to feel ‘abnormal’ or like you are defective for not meeting a made-up standard.

Here are 4 reasons to ignore petty social norms:

  1. They aren’t objectively real. At the age of 14, I realized that popularity wasn’t real. There was no ‘pecking order’ of teens in my high school. Even more importantly, I realized it only impacted me because I believed in it. Once I stopped believing in popularity, I was free from the system. Yes, popularity was a force that dictated people’s behavior. But it wasn’t actually real. Much the same, many societal pressures aren’t real. Opt out. Realize you actually *don’t* have to be married by 30 or shower every day.
  2. They are shallow. Social norms are supposed to have some benefit to the group that created them. This makes sense for something like immunization or stop lights; where your choice can impact others. This isn’t the case for deciding whether to own a boat or not; or choosing to wear the same dress to every formal event. If someone thinks your value is based on how many dresses you own – they are not a person you need in your life. Your value is inherent.
  3. They are the ‘averages’. Societal norms are based on what the ‘average person does’. If I told you the average favorite color was blue, would you consider that the ‘best’ color? Medians and averages are simply that. They are not evidence of the best course.
  4. They exclude individuality. Each of us should choose our own course. Your life should not be dictated by what you were born into, or what your peers think is best. Each of us must determine what makes sense for us. I would argue it is worse for society to have people marrying and having children when they know it isn’t right for them. This simply leaves broken marriages and damaged parental relationships. Society cannot tell you how to live your best life. You must make that decision based on who you are.

My point is this: many societal norms are irrelevant. Sure, there are ones that makes sense; like not harming others or stealing. But the majority that cause us anguish in our day to day lives can and should be ignored.

I spent years trying to fit into a societal norm. I found myself miserable. I then spent years trying to buck the societal norms. I was equally miserable. It was only when I realized that I needed to build my life to my own taste, regardless of societal norms that I found a life that works for me.  

 

 

References:

(1) Social norms and social influence, Rachel I McDonald and Christian S Crandall (http://www.columbia.edu/~rim2114/publications/2015-McDonald-Crandall.pdf)

(2) Stok, F Marijn et al. “Editorial: Unravelling Social Norm Effects: How and When Social Norms Affect Eating Behavior.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 9 738. 15 May. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00738

(3)National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Health and Medicine Division; Committee on Law and Justice; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Board on Global Health; Forum on Global Violence Prevention. Addressing the Social and Cultural Norms That Underlie the Acceptance of Violence: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2018 Apr 6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493719/ doi: 10.17226/25075

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