After a fifty-year absence in my life, a word that once filled me with fear and loathing found its way back into my world. It arrived one day, quite by accident, when my granddaughter Kylee was talking to her sister Kelsee about a classmate. I overheard her say that a certain teenager was really “popular.” Ugh. How I hated the whole idea of being popular, or worse still, trying to be popular. I never actually made the cut despite the fact I did my best to adhere to a set of unwritten rules that governed everything from clothing, to food, to the spoken word—especially the spoken word.
For instance, in 1958 (in my neighborhood, at least), if you were hip—(and by natural extension, popular) everything was “rare.” My school annual is full of notes attesting to everyone’s rareness. “To a rare guy, from an even rarer one,” can be found on nearly every page. And then one day, for reasons I still don’t understand, the word “rare” was rendered uncool because, well, “cool” was the new rare. Being cool became the goal of every person wielding a tube of Clearasil. It was all very confusing.
Being “cool” also demanded a great deal from your wardrobe. If you wanted to look hip, you bought standard pants and then took them straight to the tailor to have them narrowed at the ankles. Then, of course, you chose your cuffs. Amongst the popular crowd, a half-inch cuff was too small and a one-inch cuff too large. Your cuffs simply had to be three quarters of an inch. Wear that length of cuff and you would be on the road to cool—which eventually flowed into the narrow path of popularity, that sat a half-block to the left of nirvana, and two doors down from Valhalla.
Sadly, nothing about attaining popularity was, nor will it ever be, the least bit convenient. Popular kids routinely jumped through hoops to hold their station. Consider the humble tennis shoe. One day, the in-crowd decided that you had to wear Converse All-Stars or you’d be permanently assigned to geekdom, which is to say, to be forced to hang out with the nerds who ran the school’s movie projectors. Naturally, (and here’s where the guidelines to popularity make life difficult), your brand-new sneakers weren’t supposed to look new. New sneakers revealed that you were a latecomer to the fashion race and that was never good. So, I rubbed my fresh-out-of-the-box All-Stars with mud and grime–and then threw them in the washing machine (three times) until they came out clean, but older looking. The effect was perfect. My shoes looked as if they had never been new, but had magically appeared one day at the end of my legs—just below my three-quarter inch cuffs.
Given the effort required to be part of the “in” group, it’s little wonder that I shuddered when I heard my granddaughter mention the word popular. But the good news is, the need to be popular didn’t last. One day, after clinging to the norms that govern popularity as if they were sacred script, the very notion of being popular vanished. It happened the day I stepped onto a college campus. Matriculating students came from all around the region and there was no way to determine who had once been popular and who hadn’t. In fact, wearing a high school letter sweater was frowned upon, and mentioning your time as a cheerleader (the gold-standard of popularity) met with sneers. Suddenly, the norms governing cool were out the window, or at least very different. Kids you knew in high school, who wouldn’t have stooped to talk to you three days earlier, now chummed up to you like a life-long friend—all wearing cuffs and shoes of varying sizes, looks, and colors. It was both refreshing and unnerving.
Social scientists love to study such crowd behaviors. The power of social pressure can be both fascinating and unbelievable. For instance, as revered scholar Stanly Milgram learned decades ago, if an authority figure encourages one human to harm (even kill) another human, the researcher can get nearly three-fourths of everyday subjects to shock others to death (or at least think they did) by simply exerting a dose of authority. In the junior version of the game, you can have research confederates give blatantly wrong answers to simple questions and then watch subjects chime in with the same clearly wrong response—just to fit in. Solomon Asch made a living demonstrating this.
The idea of caving into social pressure isn’t merely curious; it also has never been very popular. As you read scientific journals (and don’t we all?), it’s hard to miss the tone taken by researchers who not only report the phenomenon, but also suggest that, at their core, humans are far too concerned about what others think of them. In fact, when the venerable Dr. Asch came out of retirement to make an appearance on the campus where I was attending school in the late 70s, I quickly made my way to his lecture. What did he have in mind? Asch, it turns out, had returned to the academy to set the record straight. He explained that he hadn’t been interested in conformity, as the topic of his research had become to be known. He had been interested in the one-fourth of all research subjects who demonstrated their courage and strength of character by standing up to the wrong opinions of others. In short, he was interested in independence.
To this day, if you ask your average adult if he or she would have been one of the compliant sixty-seven percent who Dr. Milgram manipulated into shocking others into silence, or one of the research dupes who Dr. Asch manipulated into telling a barefaced lie, almost all say, “not me.” Nobody wants to believe that they can be conned into taking questionable actions through the mere force of social pressure. Although many “not me” people probably spent most of their teenage years following trends, they now claim to desire no such thing. “Heck!” they exclaim. “Who cares what others care about? Who cares about being popular?”
The problem here is one of oversimplification. Wanting to be accepted shouldn’t be characterized solely as abandoning one’s opinion merely because one doesn’t have the courage to disagree with others. There’s a lot more going on than that. For example, wanting to get along with and be accepted by others makes up the glue that holds groups together. Helpful behaviors such as finding common ground, looking for a “third way,” carefully listening to (and truly hearing) others—are all rooted in the soil of wanting to be accepted and respected.
This means that the longing to be accepted often supplements a person’s urge to speak openly with the desire to do so respectfully. So, the next time your granddaughter mentions the word “popular,” don’t retch at the thought of following the crowd down who knows what silly path. We already did our stint in teenage hell, no need for more practice. Instead, make Dr. Asch happy by acting independently and by honestly sharing your view—even if it runs counter to the popular opinion. And then act collaboratively by tactfully sharing your views and carefully listening to others. Take pleasure in knowing that belonging to groups provides a sense of comfort and safety while personal expertise (freely spoken) coupled with the wisdom of crowds keeps the whole thing from collapsing. Oh, yes. Don’t forget to wear three-fourths inch cuffs while doing so. No use going crazy.