Breaking social expectations that violate your values

Note: This blog’s author often uses plural pronouns for self-reference.

Most of what dictates how we are supposed to act (in public, at school, at work, etc.) is made up by people. We’re not saying there is a committee actively making social norms for others to follow, though Ms. Manners and other champions of etiquette are trying. We’re also not discounting legislative bodies at all levels of government who are also actively making rules as to how one can behave in public. In actuality, these examples help prove our point that behavioral expectations are social constructions.

People make up laws and expectations. Often, these social norms are based on what societies value, such as law and order. Yet much of what passes for social expectations can appear arbitrary and can be exclusionary–used against groups who don’t know the “secret handshake.”

For example, we used to work in higher education, and we made it a point to educate our students that these social expectations existed. We discussed what potential future employers might expect of them in terms of business or professional etiquette: attire, hand shake, eye contact, topics that can create conflict at work (hot-button politics, slurs against protected groups, religion, etc.).

We also let our students know that if they didn’t like these professional expectations, their best chance of changing them would be from the inside. If the students discarded our advice to dress professionally for a job interview and act with decorum–and instead wore an AC/DC t-shirt and elaborate piercings, and checked their social media feeds during the interview–they may not be hired in the first place, reducing the likelihood they could alter the system of behavioral expectations if they didn’t like it.

Interestingly, employers are becoming more attuned to Millennials and their values because employers need workers, and appealing to people’s values is an outstanding way to recruit them. This shows that social expectations are changeable.

Outside the workplace, in particular, individuals in democratic societies have much more freedom to behave in ways that do not conform to prevailing expectations. For example, how one appears (hair, makeup, clothing, body art, etc.) allows for significant individual decisions; laws requiring minimum clothing notwithstanding.

Yes, the pressure to conform can seem insurmountable. Friends, relatives, and neighbors may look at us askance when men wear nail polish, facial makeup, or a halter top and when women wear three-piece suits with neckties, shave their heads, or wear their jeans sagging. Some people act in counter-cultural ways specifically to garner a response. Others act in counter-cultural ways because that is truer to who they feel they really are.

The point is that notions–ideas of how we must behave–are usually made up, fictions, and do not have to limit us. On a broader scale, we’re seeing societal flexibility of notions regarding gender fluidity and legal re-definitions of marriage, which are reflections that people have been loving whom they fall in love with–often courageously against societal norms and even hostility and violence. We are not implying people do or don’t choose their gender identification; our point is that society has traditionally defined gender identification narrowly and societal changes in this regard are proof that notions are social constructs.

And it’s not just in public. Privately, we have so many notions of what we “must” do that can be overturned. For example:

  • Expectation: We must enroll the kids in year-round, structured activities.
    • Reality: no, we don’t have to fill up our children’s every moment. They can have–even benefit from, some say–unstructured creative time to invent, imagine, run, rest, watch clouds, make friends, follow their whimsy. We’re not saying this choice must be made, only that it is an option.
  • Expectation: We have to kill dandelions in our yard that our neighbors have deemed unsightly.
    • Reality: no, we don’t have to treat our lawns with poisons or “environmentally friendly” treatments, because dandelions are actually a major food source for pollinators and we find them beautiful reminders of the prairie. We’re not saying we can’t pull out our dandelions if we don’t like them, only that dandelions are not inherently bad or ugly or undesirable. Dislike of them is a socially constructed notion in some places.

We find it exhilarating to consider alternative options to “have to’s” in our life. Having more choices makes us freer, puts us more in charge of our own decisions and destinies.

How do we identify socially constructed notions that are imprisoning us and that we might choose to challenge or break? Look for practices that rub against our values. In our case, we don’t value a manicured lawn. We want our yard to look more like a wild space, so we dug a pond, planted some native grasses, let weeds grow in patches around the yard, put up bird feeders, and started composting to make some great soil. We are NOT handy in any sense of the word, and still we accomplished these things with a little research, asking around, and following our gut.

We are not in violation of city ordinances, though if we were, we could choose to propose changes to city ordinances. Laws are made by people, and lawmakers represent people. If our voice is heard, we may be able to make a difference.

Some people believe notions and laws are inherent and should be immutable. They may prefer uniformity, predictability. We can understand how some people might draw comfort from knowing how things will be–such as living by the code of a strict homeowner’s association. We mean no disrespect to this crowd. That life is not for us.

The traumas we have suffered have broken our expectations of rules and uniformity. It is time for us to break back the chains that no longer serve us. We are now on the lookout for which notions serve us and which do not. The latter could become the life hacks that bring us hope, something we’re in great need of. Being gentle with nature (letting our dandelions bloom, feeding birds, providing habitat) meets our values. We are looking forward to living our values even if that bucks society’s expectations.

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