Humans have such highly-charged brains which has led us to accomplish some pretty amazing feats in our brief history. Space travel. Global communication. Combustible engines. Mass media.
It is equally amazing and mystifying how we waste that surging intellect on the oddest social constructs whether it’s what color shoes to wear with what belt or how no one looks each other in the eye when they’re in the elevator. There are books written on the subject of etiquette and how to avoid social miscues that draw unapproving looks from fellow hominids.
I’m fairly certain some of those odd social hang ups have some sort of survival root such as not making eye contact with strangers. Some of them though, like the belts and shoes, not wearing white pants after Labor Day and fork placement in a table setting, have no important basis. To me they are preferences that have somehow become “proper.” This is stupid of course. Many of these fabricated faux pas are things that don’t really matter in life and yet we spend so much time trying to adhere to them.
Why are we so concerned about this stuff? I woke up one morning and made a mental note of every action I took that was designed to fit some social norm. Yep, it started with my belt and shoes; then the right color of socks with my pants; then brushing my hair; then holding the door open for someone.
It’s probably that herd mentality that runs so strong in our DNA. Our survival has become irrevocably linked to social connections. We need each other to make it in this world, especially now that most people don’t know how to grow their own food or build their own shelter. Somewhere along the way though, these insignificant habits have become ingrained in that social necessity.
What’s worse is people who refuse to play along with some of these dumb rules are labeled misfits, non-conformists and abnormal. We even diagnose people with a disorder when they don’t pick up on specific social cues. We also make these social norms part of religion. Not only do we make people outcasts because they’re different, we also try to tell them that they’re going to hell too. There’s something wrong with labeling someone as diseased because they won’t make eye contact or their obsessively absorbed with a hobby or they just don’t care about matching their belts to their shoes.
To me, that’s dangerous. Criminal behavior is one thing. There are acts which work against the societal model on which our survival depends. But behaviors considered odd that have no effect on others is not the same thing. And therein lies the tragedy. What is considered different sometimes becomes anathema. We begin to judge people’s worth and abilities based on how they dress themselves. We interpret someone’s skill level with how well they fit in with others. We try to draw conclusions about each other on things that are, at the end of the day, preferences.
I firmly believe that we’re smarter than that. But yet again, this whole habit of judging based on immaterial social norms is based on one thing: mental laziness. We don’t want to think. Looking beyond someone’s appearance and odd behavior requires work. We actually have to invest time into getting to know someone and we just don’t want to do it. So we take shortcuts and pass judgment based on whether people know how to dress, use a salad fork for their salad or how neat they keep their desk.
Yes it does take a lot of energy to get to know someone and it’s not always feasible to do that with every person who crosses our path. But there is one thing we can do when it comes to dealing with people who are different: stop judging them so quickly based on superficial habits. We don’t have to take them to dinner or become their best friend. But we can reserve judgment until we’ve had time to know them and understand where they’re coming from.
We can do this because we have such high-capacity minds. Maybe it’s time that we used them.