How to stay unique in a world that demands conformity

BeNobodyButYourself - ee cummings quote

Have you ever felt pressure to conform? Felt uncomfortable stares when you said/did something “wrong”? Smiled at something you secretly thought was stupid? Tried something that you knew wasn’t really “you”?

 

Why do we do it?

Because the desire to be accepted is so strong – it’s the basis for race, nationality, religion, tribe, all the constructs that seek to bring structure and order to society

It’s why a fellow countryman in a foreign land inspires a fondness they might not otherwise if you’d met on home soil. Or why you’ll happily watch the crappiest TV shows from home when you’re abroad. It’s about belonging.

It’s a big confusing world out there and belonging means someone’s got your back. But what happens when you try to join a group that’s not your own? How far would you go to be accepted?

 

Odd one out

When I was eight, my parents emigrated across the channel from Ireland to England. Hardly a move to the other side of the world, but sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

I had a funny accent, a Mammy, and no clue what plimsolls were or how to play British Bulldogs. According to the village children my nationality was IRA. Kids learn fast – a brick thrown at your head is a big incentive. I lost the accent, gained a Mum, a new pair of shoes and got stuck into learning to be like everyone else. Gradually, they stopped mentioning bombs and kneecapping.

Our family moved a lot and my next major culture shock came at twelve, when I was sent to boarding school. It was private and posh; girls arrived by Bentley and helicopter. Born on an Irish farm, raised in British suburbia, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I re-worked my parent-issue wardrobe into something resembling my peers with their popped collars and silk scarves and thanked my lucky stars we spent six days a week in uniform. I pinned a photo of an Elizabethan manor house I’d visited to the dormitory wall and pointed out my bedroom window to the curious.

Littlecote Manor, Hungerford

 

 In both the above situations it was all about finding the path of least resistance, but years later, when I married into a Pakistani family, I found myself an outsider again, only this time there was an emotional investment at stake.

The old instincts kicked in and I threw myself into learning Urdu, wearing shalwar qamiz and watching Bollywood movies to gain an understanding of cultural and social mores. A range of Punjabi dishes added weight to my culinary repertoire and I felt privileged to gain understanding and insight into another way of life.

Perhaps I did too good a job, because after ten years of what I took for acceptance, my mother-in-law yelled at me “You’re NOT a Pakistani girl!” with all the indignation of one who’s been duped, and my membership to that particular group was abruptly cancelled.

The most hurtful thing, aside from rejection from people I’d placed a huge emotional investment in, was that I’d never claimed to be Pakistani, I’d just tried to understand what it was like. But I had hoped to be accepted.

 

So what did I learn?

It’s human nature to stick to what you know, but it can get a little… tedious.

Perhaps thanks to my past, I enjoy the adrenaline-rush of exposure to new environments. I look back and see I accepted things I wouldn’t have normally in my efforts to fit in. And that’s fine – you can’t view life in terms of right and wrong. It’s precisely that flexibility that allows us to reform and revise our outlook.

People worry about being different. They limit their choices, thinking if they follow the rules they’ll be just fine, until the day comes when they can’t even see choices anymore – they can’t see anything outside their narrow perspective. They’ve lost something of themselves. When it came to my in-laws, I almost lost myself in my desire to gain acceptance. I didn’t see that by trying so hard to understand their culture, I was starting to limit my perspective instead of broadening it.

I’ve learnt it’s important keep a balance – you can understand but you don’t have to embrace. You need to remember what you’re doing is for your own understanding, not to win approval. You don’t have to compromise your convictions because your opinion is just as valid as the next person’s. I’d rather be different if that’s the price of free thought.

 

Have you ever felt like the odd one out? How did you cope with it? 

 

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8 Comments

  1. It’s one of the things I value most about expat life – having one’s sense of identity constantly tested against a backdrop of trying to ‘fit in’ means you keep reevaluating your own sense of self. I struggle on a daily basis with a loss of professional identity and sense of value, but I also relish the freedom of not being defined by a role – and when even personal ones change with every move, I have quickly learned that it is easier just to be me. Maybe that’s why we consider flexibility to be one of the key characteristics of successful transition. One of the others? Being viewed as ‘different’ by nature of your nationality, culture or transient status. It allows you to get away with more than a few ‘eccentricities’..

    Reply
    • Hi Rachel, great to see you here! I love that I see beyond that identity placed upon us by professional role or place in society. When people ask “What do you do?” I have to bite my tongue to stop a facetious answer springing out! It’s made me realise how we naturally work so quickly to categorize people, to the point we don’t even realise that’s what we’re doing. And yeah! I hear you on the “eccentricities” issue ;-)

      Reply
  2. I’ve never been good at trying to win approval – rebellious streak. And I often play devil’s advocate, just to be difficult! I know how you feel – and people may not say it to my face – but if I DON’T go along with the typical mindset (Jamaicans are VERY conservative) I can almost hear them saying to themselves, “Oh, but she’s not Jamaican, so…” I have got used to the idea of not being “accepted” even after 25 years living here! But the people I really care about accept me for who I am… :-)

    Reply
    • …and that’s what REALLY counts – the rest’s just cosmetic xxx

      Reply
  3. Thank you for this post Aisha. I am also by nature someone who wants to adapt and fit in. I learned that by trying so hard to fit in and be accepted, I actually didn’t allow other people to really get to know me. That wasn’t my intention, but that was a result.

    Reply
    • That’s a very thought-provoking observation Colleen, it’s got me asking “Why” in relation to myself, perhaps my trying to fit in disguises underlying feelings of inadequacy, a way of circumnavigating the risk of letting people know the “real” me… Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and experiences.

      Reply
      • Awesome blog -open, honest, truthful and with an interesting insight into a cross cultural relationship. a quick question. Have you read something about sufism? as some of your thoughts on religion reflect tassawuf.

        Reply
        • Thanks Mohammad, I haven’t read comprehensively on sufism, but whenever I do come across it in my reading I feel it’s a close match for my perspective. It’s certainly more ‘roomy’ than the other branches of Islam.

          Reply

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