Human beings make a big deal about being normal. We’re probably the only species for which it’s normal to think you’re not normal.
Every society operates under thousands of unspoken rules, and when you break them people get nervous. There are acceptable and unacceptable ways to stand in line at the bank, order at restaurants, and answer the phone. There are appropriate and inappropriate birthday gifts, wedding toasts, and hugging styles.
Every type of social situation has its own subsection of laws and procedures. You can make everyone around you instantly uncomfortable just by facing the back wall while riding an elevator, or asking a fellow bus passenger if they want to hear a story.
Miraculously, most of us have learned most of these rules by the time we become adults, at least enough to fulfill our basic responsibilities without causing a scene. The moment kids are born, they begin to absorb clues about what’s okay and what’s not by continually watching and emulating.
We learn some of these rules in explicit mini-lessons from our parents and teachers, and occasionally friends, when they pull us aside and tell us, “We don’t talk about pee at the dinner table,” or “We don’t bring up sports betting around Eddie.”
We also learn the location of certain boundaries when we bump up against them, by remembering which acts triggered dirty looks, and which got laughs, or no reaction at all. Over time, we learn that we can avoid awkward and painful collisions with these boundaries by simply doing what other people are doing, and not doing what they’re not doing.
Stand where the other people are standing. When other people are quiet, be quiet. When they’re eating, eat. When they’re being somber, be somber. When they laugh, laugh (even if you don’t get the joke).
This survival tactic eventually becomes a part of our worldview. Humans are an easily frightened, highly social species, and we put together a sense of how things are supposed to be—of how we’re supposed to be—by what seems normal for the people around us. How do you know if you’re in good health for someone your age? For some places and times in history, failing health at age 48 is expected; in 21st-century USA, it means something’s gone wrong. Read More