Gain acceptance with almost anyone by following these 5 tips.
Posted Apr 25, 2017
Being able to stand out from the crowd is, in many cases, important to your success in relationships. Individuality is a quality to strive for when you want to gain recognition for your unique personal attributes. There are other times, though, when being able to fit into the crowd becomes more beneficial in helping you achieve your goals. Perhaps you’ve been invited by a friend to a family gathering and, as the one new person, don’t want to draw attention to yourself. In a work setting, being considered a team player means that you stick within a set of established boundaries. Socially, going along with the crowd can also help when you’re getting other people to like you. New research on conformity provides guidance on how to blend in when that is your goal.
Social norms are those expectations we hold about how to behave as the occupant of a particular role, group, or society in general. You follow those norms, often without giving the matter much thought, whenever you act in a way consistent with whatever feature is most relevant at the time. You may be a mother at home but a coworker in the office, and it would be unusual for you to adhere to the maternal role at the office or the colleague role at home. In social norms defined by one of your intrinsic features, such as your gender, age, or ethnicity, you have fewer degrees of freedom for straying from that set of expectations. Roles that you occupy by virtue of your inherent qualities or your social position provide narrower norms than roles or positions that are more fluid. You may be the outsider at a family gathering of your friend, but you become the insider at your own family’s social function. It will be much easier to express your individuality when everyone knows you than if you’re not sure of how that individuality will come across.
In norms that are more programmed into your inherent qualities, fitting in might require that you ascribe to the established set of expectations that others in your society hold toward people who have those qualities. Older people are expected to “act their age,” and men and women are expected (especially in certain societies) to behave in stereotypically masculine or feminine ways. When they don’t, they may suffer negative consequences, but they may suffer similarly aversive consequences when they do.
In a large-scale meta-analysis of 78 samples involving 19,453 individuals (the majority of whom were male), Indiana University Bloomington’s Y. Joel Wong and colleagues (2017) examined the mental health outcomes of conformity to the stereotypical masculine norms of self-reliance, power over women, and playboy. Conformity to all three of these components of the masculine role was reliably related to poor mental health outcomes. Men who conformed to these three aspects of the masculine role were also less likely to seek psychological help when distressed. However, conformity to other aspects of the masculine role was not associated with poorer mental health or an unwillingness to get help. Making work a priority and being willing to take risks had no negative associations with mental health. In fact, being willing to take risks was related to better mental health.
Thus, you may not always want to conform to your group’s norms. In fact, the Wong et al. study showed that adherence to stereotypical masculine norms was more strongly related to mental health among non-college than college samples. It’s quite likely that peer pressure to be masculine had more of a negative impact on the mental health of men situated in an environment that is less friendly toward men who don’t adhere to stereotypically masculine norms.
As the Wong et al. team note, it’s “well-established in the theoretical and empirical literature” that adhering to the norms of the group may be beneficial to an individual’s mental health (p. 88). The beneficial turns to harmful when those norms become too constraining, as shown in the study of masculinity. Social norms are there to help guide us, but when they cut you off from your own set of values and ideas, they can have the opposite effects.
Until you know whether a group or culture’s norms will fit your sense of identity, taking the more conservative route of fitting in seems to be the safer path to follow. These 5 tips will help lead you to that path:
1. Most importantly, decide if you want to fit in. The Indiana University study showed that having to fit into a crowd that doesn’t match your values or personality can sap your mental health. If you’re constantly having to adjust your identity to the group’s, you may want to find a different group.
2. Choose clothes according to the situation. If you’re going to a funeral, you probably wouldn’t want to be the only one wearing white. Similarly, if invited to a social gathering where you’re not sure what to wear, you may want to ask someone you know before you get your outfit together. That proverbial “I didn’t get the blue memo” suggests that we do pay attention to the color worn by the other people around us. If you didn’t get that “memo,” you may feel unusually awkward, because you feel that you don’t look quite right. Your colors don’t have to match everyone’s, but the general level of formality should.
3. Tune in to the nonverbal cues of the people around you. If everyone else is serious, you don’t want to be the only one laughing or even smiling. At a serious event, you need to maintain your composure, but if you do so at a jolly one, you’ll be seen as unfriendly. It’s especially important to read these cues when you don’t know the people in the group very well, but it’s usually wise to err on the side of being a bit more restrained than everyone else.
4. Respect the norms of the group. If you’re the newest person to join a well-established group, you may not realize just how people in this group normally interact. Let’s say you’re the newest employee, and you come from a company where people stopped and chatted at each other’s desks, even if there was a lot of work to do. At your new company, this behavior may be frowned upon, so before you become known as someone to steer clear of, see whether your new company follows these same norms.
5. Keep the focus of attention on others, not you. You’ll be most likely to be appreciated by others when it seems that you’re genuinely interested in them. It may not come naturally to you, but try to maintain a low profile until you feel more sure of yourself.
We can all gain fulfillment by meeting new people and exposing ourselves to new situations. The study by Wong and colleagues showed the dangers of sacrificing your values to those of the people around you when you honestly don’t adhere to them. Sticking around in the group long enough to see whether this is one you want to join requires that they let you into their world. After that, it’s up to you.