The modern society around us, at least in the developed nations, is one dictated by social constructs. The culture of our communities, the thoughts and beliefs of those around us, and certain behavioral rules from the state or another overarching power often heavily influences how we behave in social situations, from etiquette to language to the nature of the social interaction itself. These social constructs, for the most part, exist to make many social interactions more pleasant and often utilitarian; concepts of respect and social mannerisms exist for that purpose. However, in too many situations social constructs dictated by the culture and enforced, sometimes unknowingly, through the media has unreasonable effects in many facets of our interactions.
A prime example of this can be found in most social situations where a certain level of professionalism is expected or the parties involved are not familiar enough with each other, causing an air of nervousness to settle into the situation. In many of these situations, be it a business-related meeting or a date, the American culture dictates that somehow the parties involved should not make mistakes that will impress negatively on the other. To put it simply, if Alex went on a date with Scott and Alex accidentally spilled drinks on Scott, the predominant culture refers to the situation as being “awkward”. Of course, this event is on the whole undesirable, but I think too often we fall into the traps of our culture’s social constructs and are too quick to call something “awkward”, then dismiss it as something much worse that it actually is.
Factor of undesirability aside, I believe the reason we often run into situations of social awkwardness is because, as hard as it may be to admit, many times we fail to completely think of all the parties involved in a social interactions as equally human. Many times we unconsciously conceptualize the others as more perfect or better than us, and this leads to much of the social stigma of our generation. The social stigma associated with this particular example arises from the fact that to an extent, we culturally deify the other. We construct and craft a mental image of the other as somehow being a perfect entity onto which only positive impression of our own selves must be allowed. And this picture breaks down under a bit of careful examination. The same applies for other socially stressful situations such as interviews or perhaps parties.
These social constructs are useful at times, but when they are not useful but instead stressful and otherwise negatively affecting the situation at hand, I believe it is better to recognize that such social constructs are not necessary and instead see others as only human. People too often and too easily ignore the fact that each soul carries with him or her a complex story of life. And along the same lines, we often neglect the fact that the ones we often deify; whether that be celebrities, authors, musicians, friends, or someone higher up in a business or financial hierarchy; are still just as human and prone to mistakes as we are. I think it is in this often ignored fact that we can find the solution to social “awkwardness”.
In fact, it seems that many of today’s social and even some of the larger, moral problems have their basis on our inabilities to envision others as complex human beings that each of us individually are. I’m certainly not suggesting that this problem of relating to others is the only cause or the universal solution to social and moral problems of today. However, in relating to others as capable of and possessing the same range of emotions and consciousness that we ourselves feel we are capable of, I believe we can alleviate many of our issues.
Along these lines, I think a major reason people, including myself, find imagining others complexly difficult is because humans are innately narrow-minded. Through logic and conscious effort we may be able to temporarily and in a limited fashion overcome this limintation, but under emotional or mental stress or when such tools as logic and reason are not used, we tend to return to our narrow-minded selves. For example, in the United States, seeing that we have a history of severe racial discrimination and gender bias, in our education systems and our cultures we are trained to logically overcome our narrow-minded thoughts that confine ourselves to such bias, as they appear. But people from parts of the world wherein ethnic and racial discrimination has generally not been an issue, like South Korea for example, tend to be less open towards accepting others of different ethnicity or race as equally human to themselves. The problem is, there’s now seven billion of us on Earth, rapidly approaching the theoretical limit of around 10 billion, and it is sometimes difficult to visualize others as equally complex and equally human.
But we happen to be rather stuck in this beautiful and imperfect world, and however difficult or contradictory of your beliefs it may be to attempt to imagine each of the seven billion people on earth as more than a large number on a fact sheet, every one of those seven billion brings to the human society as a collective something unfathomably unique and beautiful from any other of the billions, and each life story is to the collective story of humanity what each leaf of paper is to a novel: seemingly insignificant yet incredibly important. And as each page brings to the novel what no other page contains, each life story is an expression of some part of humanity not expressed or found in any other.
I’m not saying every one of us should travel around the world, experiencing all and anything we can (although that would be wonderful). I’m not suggesting that in doing so we will be able to eliminate terrorism and war from this world. However I am saying that in all of the seven billion authors of incredible novels and the seven billion composers of neverending symphonies and the seven billion actors in the cosmic stage there is a certain human factor that unifies all of us, in the infinite and uniquely human capacity for love, tears, sympathy, sorrow, unlimited creativity, and relinquishing happiness. And I believe, therefore, that in finding those human connections among us and in imagining the untold tales behind each of us, we may find a way to make the most of our company in our lives.
So the next time you see someone, whether that be your family, a close friend, or a stranger you see walking down the street; a name on an epitaph, a deceased author, or even a trail of comments on a website, imagine a story in them – a story just as complex and full of beauty and fault as your own – because no matter how different he or she may seem, he loves, as you do; he struggles, as you do; he knows tears and happiness as you do. In recognizing, however temporarily, the shared Human Factors, the barriers that separates you from them is removed; and as drops of water carves out a canyon, seconds of connections just may be enough to break down the metaphorical walls of human conflict.
For an awesome look at the different stories, lifestyles, and human diversity around the world, check out Life in a Day, a unique film from National Geographic.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Not about the milestones.
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