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How Cultures Make People Conform

Cultures get people to want to conform.

The Japanese have a saying, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” In other words, act like other people, don’t show off, or else.

These forms of social pressure are particularly pronounced in hierarchical cultures, as in East Asia, where people are supposed to know their place, and in small towns, where everyone regularly interacts with everyone else. But they exist to a greater or lesser extent in all cultures.

When you think about it, it becomes clear that pressures to conform are a universal feature of culture. After all, the very idea of culture implies that people think, feel, and act similarly—otherwise, no common content would exist. And since there is no reason for this similarity to arise spontaneously, social mechanisms must exist to create it.

External force is unpleasant, and people don’t like it, so while it may always be lurking in the background, cultures are more effective at maintaining and propagating themselves when they can get individuals to want to conform and to want to make others conform as well.

Because humans are social animals who live in groups and have a protracted period of learning the ways of the world, they internalize social norms and folk beliefs, including religion, before it occurs to them to ask critical questions. This is why it is said: “You can’t choose your culture. Your culture chooses you.”

For example, you grow up speaking a language and learning the implicit social rules and meanings that are built into its vocabulary and grammar. So the acquisition of culture occurs before children have the intellectual power to ask pointed questions

Here, for example, from Wikipedia are the ten rules of the Scandinavian implicit code of conduct, known as the Law of Jante (named for a small, Danish town in a novel):

1. You're not to think you are anything special.

2. You're not to think you are as good as us.

3. You're not to think you are smarter than us.

4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than us.

5. You're not to think you know more than us.

6. You're not to think you are more important than us.

7. You're not to think you are good at anything.

8. You're not to laugh at us.

9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.

10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.

And here is another example from my own personal experience. When people ask me how I am feeling, it is difficult for me to say, “Great in every way!” I’m much more comfortable with an answer like “OK” or “Not bad.”

Where did this tendency come from? As with other cultural traits, it may appear at first as an aspect of personality—an expression of individual uniqueness rather than behavior shared by a larger group. I think it is a vestige of beliefs about the evil eye that my Eastern European Jewish grandparents brought with them to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century—stronger in my parents than in me, and absent in my daughter.

The Eastern European Jewish version of the evil eye inhibits the spontaneous expression of emotion. Its primary effect is to keep individuals from boasting about their good luck, health, possessions, or children. In doing so, it avoids provoking envy in others and thereby promotes harmony within the larger group

Culture is a mixed bag. It offers individuals closeness, mutual support, a sense of identity, and many other advantages, but these advantages come at a price.

More from Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.
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