It’s really wonderful to feel like part of a group. it goes along with this fundamental human “need to belong” that one of my psychology Professors, Mark Leary, has been studying for quite some time. However, there seems to be a conflicting dynamic that works with this need to belong that I believe leads to what we observe as a hook up culture. On the one hand, it feels good to feel like part of a group, but on the other hand, it feels terrible to be rejected. There seems to be a difference between inclusion and exclusion. To be included means to be invited to things, share inside jokes, and have a common understanding that you fit well within some social fabric. To be excluded, on the other hand, can be overt or subtle. An overt exclusion is someone going out of their way to send you a strong message that you are different, or don’t belong with the group, or are closer to belonging to an outgroup. A subtle exclusion might be as simple as someone or a group of people that you thought you were close with doing something together and not telling you about it, even if it was spur of the moment and inviting you wouldn’t have been natural. In this case, the exclusion is really more of a perception on your side of the cranium. Regardless of the incentive or reason for exclusion, it makes us feel badly either way. So we generally govern our lives possibly not to take part in every social situation that crosses our paths, but to minimize the chances of being excluded. So I may not want to participate, but I sure as heck want the invite!
What does that mean, on a day to day basis, for how we interact with people? It leads to larger friend groups with more people and weaker connections. It means that when the desire to connect with people comes about, we send a mass group email of the flavor “does anyone want to do X?” as opposed to a personal message to one other person. It means that even if we desire more emotional intimacy with a friend, it’s incredibly hard to pursue because there is the risk of scaring them off with a need, and in the process being more separated from the larger group you are both affiliated with. Thus, it is safer to seek social fulfillment in a larger, more impersonal context than reveal more and take chances on few people. It also means that when those times come around when we do need to talk to that one person, we find ourselves surrounded with many, acquainted with wonderful people, but not quite close enough to be able to call anyone, and ask to stop by for a hug.
I find this on my mind because it’s very apparent to me how many kids here at school work so hard to play it cool. The boy on the bus sits in a certain way, is dressed in a certain way, takes off his glasses in a certain way, to send the message that he is suave, collected, and untouchable. The worker outers at the gym that approach the pullup bar aren’t so much into the pullups but making them a performance of brute strength and muscle to envy. Many of my customers seem to be worried that their choice of lunch for the day sends a particular message about them to me, to their friends, or even the people around them. Even with eye contact, passing someone by, people work so hard to be it all that a huge component of realness is just gone. People speak in cliche’s, use the same expressions and gestures, and hide serious thoughts and emotions behind a facade of their choice, for whatever is appropriate for the situation. Because acting any differently, or maybe doing what you really want to do or something that feels more true to yourself, may not be looked upon favorably by someone. Yes, you might be excluded, so to compensate you do what you perceive as necessary to be most socially accepted. This is where superficiality, or fakeness, grows from.
And I find it tiring. How I love to put energy into others because it makes me feel close to them, and it feels good, but how tiring it is to be just another person included in a mass email. How I wish to get closer to some of my friends, but that’s not possible in a large group of people afraid to bring down their facade. But on the other thing, it’s a nice thing to have superficiality, because there are people that I have no desire to get close to, or know more about, and the established social structure and superficiality allows me to deal with them and move on with my day. It’s just a fact that you can only maintain so many friendships at one time, and it makes sense to maintain the most valuable ones.
It’s probably a good thing that I’m graduating, because I’ve reached a point when the same large group dynamic is getting old. I’m not sure if this is a sign of gaining more maturity or possibly just getting tired of the daily performance of life, but I crave, selfishly, to feel connected to one or two people, that I might trust wholeheartedly and revel in understanding each others strengths, weaknesses, imperfections, and all those things that make human beings interesting and real. News flash, emotions and imperfections doesn’t equate to being weak or a bad friend and does not mean that you will be rejected. Sometimes these things can turn people away, but then I’d argue if the person is uncomfortable with your degree of desire for emotional connectedness, it wasn’t a friendship match in the first place.
I think, for my generation at least, that the current culture works, at least in the life of a busy college student. I do strongly believe, however, that a time will come when many realize that this dynamic isn’t enough for the human heart. That even the most achievement oriented and busy/important/go-getters have moments when meeting a deadline or going to a group dinner could never feed the same hunger that sitting down and talking with one person might. I can speak for myself: I’m incredibly highly traited in the “go-getter” dimension, and sometimes doing that go-getter thing is missing a component of shared investment.
My mind is on this tread of thinking because, for myself, I know that I am terrified of relying on others, and of relinquishing my self sufficiency. I think that my best efforts to maintain a feeling of connectedness with my friends is to do little nice things for them, possibly in fear of losing my social ties I feel good to do these things because it is an assurance of maintaining connection. With this dynamic I can maintain my belongingness without ever sacrificing self sufficiency. But I do realize that, for when a large stressor does hit me unexpectedly, I have not allowed myself to get close enough to anyone to feel OK about calling them for that hug. It’s primarily the Type-A orientedness of my personality that I attribute to this need for self sufficiency, because I feel huge accomplishment and pride in forever doing things early and efficiently. This is what has driven my desire and now natural tendency to wake up early, finish things hugely in advance, and always have backup plans for everything. I believe that as long as life stays away from large tumbles that I’ve had in the past, I have enough insight into myself to maintain smooth sailing. I can’t imagine that I can be hit harder than I already have, so my skin is thick, but I better knock on wood for that one. Be right back.
I can forsee, and know from experience, that life is not predictable, and I know that there will be times when I have questions and can’t think up an answer, or maybe just need some reassurance and a hug, when my self sufficiency just won’t replace someone that cares about me. I’d say that the observation of giving and receiving affection in what I perceive to be my culture has been one of my biggest conflicts in that I desire that same dynamic but feel iffy about applying it to my own life. But with these desires in mind and knowledge about myself and the people I enjoy spending time with, this might help me find those few that I will be able to just show up, and jump on for a hug. Yes, that will be a wonderful connection. Homework time!
Sochat, Vanessa. "You're hot then you're cold - that means you're human?." @vsoch (blog), 01 Feb 2009, https://vsoch.github.io/2009/youre-hot-then-youre-cold-that-means-youre-human/ (accessed 20 Mar 23).