Interpersonal Rules that Undermine Your Relationships #6

Being individual raises your social value but being too different lowers it.

Posted Sep 11, 2017

     Rule #6 – Being "unique" can raise your social value in a hyper individualistic  culture but being too different can lower your social value and the line dividing the two is rarely transparent and often shifting.

          This rule takes a little explaining. Being different or unique in a power over system can be a double-edged sword and very dependent on social context. For example, if you happen to be a student in a parochial school, socioeconomic difference may be modulated by school uniforms so at least during school hours you are free from judgement based on wardrobe. However, if you are a student in a suburban, public school labels on clothes and shoes carry social value and are a window into social, class and power status. Without clear directives on safe levels of difference, most people are left to intuit a socially acceptable level of difference without realizing that the target changes from one group to another. Very few of us are taught the social skills necessary to build relationships across existing difference. And, difference is all there is!  

Used with permission Lisa Langhammer
Source: Used with permission Lisa Langhammer

           Meeting difference in others is a core relational experience and building relationships across difference is critical to successfully navigating the world. With roughly 7 billion unique people on earth and no consistent instructions on how to cognitively manage another person's difference in an integrated way, your gut instincts have a field day often causing high levels of fear.  If you were different from the dominant Aryan race in Nazi Germany in the 1940's, you could be banished from the country, imprisoned in a concentration camp or executed. But, context matters. Historically, being “two-spirited” or transgendered in many Native American tribes elevated you to the role of Shaman while many countries you would be shunned at best. In the United States we have a love-hate relationship with difference.  We love the rebel, the edgy, aloofness of James Dean but hate and fear the rogue, scornful of those who live outside mainstream social structures.  Steve Jobs brilliantly preyed on our two-faced approach to difference by creating an ad campaign challenging people to “think different” by purchasing Apple products. Millions of people swallowed the bait – hook, line, and sinker – proudly purchasing the latest Apple product that would make them seem unique knowing full well that most of their friends and family were buying the same products! 

           While almost everyone is taught to be uncomfortable with extreme difference, there is no absolute line in the sand, no police barrier that warns you when you have crossed into a dangerous level of difference. When a rebellious teenager walks down the street with his hair dyed purple, cut in a Mohawk and gelled into foot high spikes, almost everyone sees and judges him as too different.  At best, people chalk it up to “those crazy, tormenting, teenage years”, at worst; he is seen as out of control, dangerous, and warranting social exclusion.  While too different may be defined as two standard deviations away from the normal height, weight, skin color, sexual orientation, house size, or salary, in a power over culture, any stratified difference has the potential to turn dangerous.

      Do you remember the first time you became consciously aware that it is ok to be unique but not too different? I learned this critical and confusing social rule in my home state of Maine, where a young man was killed for being too different.                   Charlie Howard was an openly gay man living in Bangor in the summer of 1983 and I was working for a pathologist at a local hospital, preparing to apply to medical school.  On a hot, humid night, after leaving a nightclub with a couple of friends, Charlie Howard was attacked walking over a bridge.  The assailants were local teenage boys, not known “trouble makers” out stealing cars or breaking into homes.  In fact, they were all part of the popular and successful high school football team.  Like vultures to a wounded animal, they sensed Charlie Howard’s vulnerability.  Were they offended by the effeminate way he walked and talked?  Likely.  Did they grow up in a culture of homophobia?  Undoubtedly.  Did they feel empowered to teach Charlie Howard a lesson? Surely. Despite Charlie’s declarations that he could not swim, the three boys picked him up and threw him over the bridge into the swift flowing river below.  He drowned as the young men ignored his cries for help.

     By the next morning, the whole town knew of the blatant assault and murder of Charlie Howard. But, in the days that followed, as I listened to people discussing the murder, what emerged was the community’s deep discomfort with homosexuality.  It seemed everyone’s Gut was churning.  A person unaware of the details of the attack listening to the conversations would have had a hard time knowing who was to blame.  I heard comments like, “he deserved it”, “they were just being boys”, and “they didn’t mean to kill him”.  I was not surprised when these statements came from people I suspected were homophobic, but I was devastated and scared when people I thought were open-minded and caring seemed genuinely confused about who was at fault. In fact, when one of the pathologists I admired made a joke about the murder while peering through his microscope, I kept my mouth shut. That summer, I learned an essential life lesson – being too different can kill you.  It is a lesson as old as the scriptures and was reinforced when I left Maine and learned the long history of lethal social exclusion in the United States and the world. You can be lynched, blasted by a fire hose, beaten up on the playground, attacked by guard dogs, and thrown out of your family and community – simply for being too different.  

     In a world where relationship is central, difference and connection comfortably coexist. There is less time and energy spent on figuring out the social dilemma of how to stand out but not become the target of others competing for space at the top.  In a relational world, we teach our children to be curious about difference rather than afraid.  In that world, we actively starve neural pathways that link difference with sympathetic nervous system stimulation and fear and actively stimulate and grow neural pathways devoted to understanding and communicating across difference. In a relational world, our differences make our communities stronger.