Human beings are social creatures. We crave validation and acceptance from our peers; if not to be liked, then at least to feel accepted. This need for inclusion could be biologically wired from our time as hunter-gatherers, where being part of a group or a community provided protection and a higher chance of survival.
But even though our days of wooly-mammoth hunting and huddling around fires in caves against wild animals are long over, why do we still have an innate need to belong? I mean, how many times have you been peer-pressured into doing something that you wouldn’t otherwise, simply because you didn’t want to offend a friend, or didn’t want people to think you’re a spoilsport? We force ourselves to conform to a group dynamic, because we need this sense of inclusion and the feeling of being liked.
Unfortunately, this can be a problem for those who are not naturally attuned to act in ways that groups see as the benchmark for ‘likable’. Think of a party, and describe the people who would usually be at the center of attention. Words that come to mind may include ‘open’, ‘friendly’, ‘funny’, ‘interesting’, and ‘charming’, to name a few. Now think about the people who usually hang out in the corners at the same party, and the words that pop up now are “quiet”, “shy”, and “anti-social”.
The bottomline: group 1 = good, ‘rewards’. Group 2 = bad, ‘ostracized’.
I’ve always fallen into the latter category, no matter where I’ve gone. It’s not from a lack of trying–despite social gatherings being out of my comfort zone, I genuinely try to listen to what people say and push myself to approach or talk to others, especially new people. What I’ve observed, however, is that this tends to end in failure: talk often peters out because our conversations won’t jive, or people turn to their own cliques and ignore me completely. I’m often left wondering what I’m doing wrong, and why.
The thing is, I don’t think I’m bad at communicating. I have friends who hang out with me and (I’d like to believe) enjoy my company, and I’ve never had problems vibing with colleagues, some of whom have become my friends for life.
The problem, imo, lies in the dynamics of group behaviour.
In social situations, we are hard wired to act or behave in certain ways, which includes how we gravitate to certain individuals within the group.
Take Obama, for example. Eloquent and confident, you feel his presence as soon as he walks into a room or goes up to a podium. Social butterflies tend to have this magnetic energy, and other members feel drawn to everything that they say and do, whether or not it has substance.
On the other end of the spectrum you get the broody ones (like me). A colleague once told me I have resting bitch face, and that she was surprised to find that I’m actually pretty easy going once she started talking to me. (We ended up becoming close friends even after our time at the company. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding).
With most large social gatherings, conversations tend to be superficial, and people form quick and judgy first impressions because the group is so big that they don’t want to waste time ‘chipping away’ to get to the meat of someone who seems reserved and shy. Others might feel more comfortable with familiar faces, so they form cliques–it’s also easier to talk about familiar topics with people you already know, as opposed to roping in a stranger and having to explain the group’s jokes or bring them up to speed to the clique’s collective knowledge.
Unfortunately, aside from being polite, engaging, and showing interest in others beyond what I’m already doing, I cannot emulate the charm that comes naturally to other people, short of completely overhauling my personality. Which brings me to my next point:
Sometimes, the solution you want might not be the one you need.
There was a point in time where I believed the problem was mine to solve, and no one else’s. I should take the initiative to be more open and friendly, and if I felt left out, it was because I wasn’t doing enough to make others feel comfortable with my presence and personality. The flaw in this logic that I’ve recently realized is that I will never be like those people, no matter how much I try.
- I will never be naturally charismatic.
- I will never be a social butterfly.
And if the negative effects of forcing myself to conform to these group dynamics in order to be well liked causes me more suffering and anxiety, I am better off without it. I don’t have to join stuff I don’t want to join, but I can be open to situations I’m comfortable with. It doesn’t make me a spoilsport.
I guess the main takeaway is try your best, but if it doesn’t work, it’s okay: you don’t have to beat yourself up over it, because sometimes, the problem isn’t you.