What Determines Our Social Behaviour?
Humans always behave. They usually behave in a different manner when they are in company than when they are alone. Why is this, and what makes us alter our attitude in public? According to what rules do we adjust our public bearing?
How much our behaviour alters is completely up to how important it is for us what other humans might think about us.
One who attaches much importance to his outward appearance might change his behaviour more strongly than one who does not care what others could think and tattle about him. Therefore the reason why most humans’ social behaviour differs from their private behaviour is the fact that they put emphasis on how they appear to their fellows, plus the belief that their private behaviour would have a negative impact on their outward appearance. Beyond, this is a quantitative issue: How much emphasis we put on our outward appearance decides how intense our bearing changes in public.
One question this essay deals with is: Why do some humans care about their outward appearance – some more, some less; while others seem not to care at all?
Furthermore it is significant that the behaviour of humans who put emphasis on their outward appearance not only changes when they are accompanied but that the intensity of its change depends on whom they are accompanied by. Being together with close friends, for instance, would cause a smaller change of their bearing than being together with strangers. Thus the grade of the alteration of our behaviour is also up to the intimacy towards the humans we interact with.
We will look into the question later, why this coherence between our behaviour and the intensity of the acquaintance with our interactor exists.
There are more traits of our opponent which are crucial regarding the alteration of our behaviour. Age, openness, sympathy and social status are as important as the frame at large in that the social interaction is embedded.
A decisive role plays the gender. It is often said that men talk and behave differently when they are among themselves. This is true. Vocabulary changes utterly, tone becomes rougher, jokes and laughter filthier. Topics of conversation change entirely. Finally behaviour becomes easier and unforced. Of course, it is similar with women.
Let us first have a look at John Doe. John is a typical member of the human race. He is male, but we could also have chosen Jane who is female. This would only have changed some nuances after all. Let us stick to John. He is 35 years old, but he may also be 14 or 56. This, as well, would only change little.
Although we have to assert that humans generally seem to attach less importance to what others think about them the older they become. This is important! The more a human approximates death and faces eternity, the more he is obsessed by the awareness of how short his life actually is and how shorter and shorter it is becoming, the less he is interested in his outward appearance. He might perhaps laugh about the superficiality of his former years – if he is capable of laughing at all…
Back to John: John works in a restaurant, most of the time as a dishwasher, sometimes, when personnel are short, also as a waiter. Then he is expected to smile all along and give the clients the impression of how great it is to receive orders all day. Some of the very witty clients have always had difficulties to believe that. So they hand out a tip to John, expressing their pity with this poor creature they call their fellow human being.
Yesterday John got a fifty dollar note tip. The result was the probably first non-fake smile of the day. John was happy for a moment, and the client had stilled his pity and done his good deed for the day. How nice!
But wait a moment. Was this really the only motivation for the cliental human? Was he simply of good nature or – did he rather only want to show his good nature off? Show his wealth off? When we look more closely we will find his business fellows sitting next to him. Would he have acted as generously if he had been alone, if nobody could have seen him? Probably not. There are very few conspecifics that would have done so and – rather elderly ones…
Anyway, today is Sunday and John has his second day off. He is neither showered nor shaved. Not that he would not feel comfortable – he does. He has opened himself the third beer and is enjoying himself with an Oscar Wilde film adaptation.
Suddenly the phone rings. John’s friend Paul gives notice of him coming by in an hour. They are going to booze a bit and talk about women and baseball, John considers. While Paul is reporting him to have got the phone number of two “chicks” the day before and them having nice “butts”, John decides to place the novel he reads, which lays beside his bed, back into the shelf. He does not want Paul to know that he is fond of Cecelia Ahern’s romances; after “PS, I Love You” he is currently reading “Where Rainbows End”. As he does so, Paul suggests inviting the girls to a shared evening tonight. To John it seems rather a decision than a suggestion and Paul finishes the call with the promise: “You have never had such butts pass your threshold.”
Paul has placed John in a difficult position. The girls might like his book taste. Perhaps he should rather put the novel in a demonstrative position or even take “PS, I Love You”, which he had finished a month earlier, out of the shelf too, and place both books on his desk, viewable for all.
Suddenly he recognises that his room has not been vacuumed for five weeks and that his paper basket is full of tissues. John does not want to arouse false associations on the girls’ minds.
He wonders how their butts are formed.
John is worried, whether he can take a shower, shave and tidy up his home within one hour.
We see that concern about one’s outward appearance can cause stress. But then, I am sure, in secret, John appreciated the girls’ visit not only because of their bottoms, but also because he would have continued living in a pigsty for the next weeks, otherwise.
Why does John not care at all how he and his home look like as long as he is alone? Why does he then care about the romance book beside his bed when his friend is going to arrive? Why is he suddenly willing to tidy up everything and care about his look when he expects female visitors?
We could image the situation with his parents or his employer coming, too, for example. Then he would probably care about new issues which he did not care about before.
As soon as John starts tidying up or getting ready, he is working. We all work when we do so. We do the lowbrowest physical work, for example cleaning a room. And we do not work directly for ourselves, but for the counterpart. We downgrade ourselves and do work we would not do otherwise, just to appeal to another human.
We can certainly assume that also Paul and the two girls are getting ready for the evening. Considering this, John could be eased. The girls won’t make it within an hour. It is not a secret that women always did a lot more to appeal to men than vice versa. This is even less apparent in our “enlightened” society than in many tribal customs or civilised cultures’ traditions.
Until the first half of 20th century it was common for a Chinese woman to get her feet bound, starting at the age of six, so that the bones would cripple, the arch would break. Thus the feet would grow abnormally; some women would die from the resulting infections, while the others could not properly walk anymore.
Why was this done to the women? The answer is obvious and perhaps just because of this shocking: Because it looked better, at least according to then beauty ideals.
One could object that this example is out of place because the women were forced to suffer from that cruelty, they did not do it themselves. This argument does not take into account that women wanted their feet being deformed. Otherwise they would have counted as ugly and would not have been accepted in society let alone have found a man. The richer the household the smaller the feet, one could sarcastically summarise.
Besides the custom was carried out by women themselves. It was the mother who bounded her daughter’s feet and she was proud of this.
Many cultures offer us sayings like “Beauty must suffer” or, German, “Wer schön sein will muss leiden.” that represent the (mostly female) impulse to strive for beauty by any means
Furthermore we can find this impulse itself in any culture. Female genital cutting is still widespread in many African cultures; World Health Organisation assesses that far more than 100 million women are genitally cut worldwide . There are many reasons for this painful and, in the view on humanity, cruel custom, one is surely beauty enforcement.
This beauty enforcement is also visible in our western culture. When we watch old movies or read myths we often meet girls on the ball who can barely breathe, for their gown is constricting their breath. They suffer throughout the whole evening just to look slender.
Also today many women squeeze into tight jeans all day to indicate, how slim their legs are. Many women today shave their legs and genitals because contemporary men like it that way. In this concern we see a convergence of the genders. More and more men act alike.
We should state here that all these endeavours are done to appeal to the other sex.
The relevance of our sex drive regarding social behaviour is, as I see it, underestimated.
Imagining John walking on a desolate road and a woman approaching; John becomes nervous, even if he was taken and so much in love with his partner that he was not interested at all in a liaison.
However, why do we set such a high value on our outward appearance? This question has not been essentially answered, yet. I’ll attempt an answer with Aristotle. According to him, the human is a zoon politikon, a social animal. These are probably his most frequently cited words and they are also the key to our phenomenon of social behaviour.
It means that we are dependent on each other. We need each other to survive and we need each other to become happy. Society therefore is an utter need of each human.
There are many ways of proving this statement and I will present some of these in the following.
First and foremost it is obvious that, in order to ensure the survival of our race, two specimens of this race have to find together and have sex together. For this purpose they have to interact and communicate. Why is this? Why does reproduction need an interaction between two exemplars? Why do we therefore have to “be social”?
In the course of evolution this way of reproduction has emerged, because it ensures a steady development and adaptation of our genes to our environment.
Hence our being social is profitable for our species to be “the fittest”.
Of course there has to be more than that, as far as the zoon politikon is concerned, because most other animals reproduce twosome too.
Fewest animals have lifelong relationships and no other species has such a reflected love as we have, the conscious feeling of loving a conspecific. We humans know constructions as friendship and (extended) family, we know loyalty and fidelity. We do not only love each other in order to reproduce, but we have emerged beyond this. We, in this concern, emancipated from nature and established a culture. And society is part of this culture.
A human that grows up isolatedly is not only not capable of surviving as it lacks feeding – in this far there is no difference to animals, but even if it did not need to cope with that, the human being would not develop properly.
Contrary to Aristotle, who boiled his idea of the zoon politikon down to nature, I claim that we are social animals because of our culture.
Since we are cultural animals, we are social animals. This is why an isolatedly grown-up child could not live as a usual human. It would lack any type of social competence.
Our culture has driven us so far that a solid economic – which means: nutritive – assurance is not possible without the work of others. This phenomenon is described by the economic term of division of labour. The simple loaf of bread that we eat has had a world journey. Hundreds of people worked on it, from the baker who formed it, via the miller who shred the corn into flour, via the farmer who harvested the corn, to the many workers who were involved in producing the farmer’s harvester and other equipments etc. Not to forget the retrieval of water needed for all these steps, the production, placing and maintenance of water pipes etc.
Globalisation has driven us into new dimensions of human interdependence and the internet with all its global networks as the representation of globalisation makes us once again clear how right Aristotle was when he asserted, more than 2000 years ago, that we are social animals.
As society is of such importance for us, we naturally try to gain as much social acceptance as possible. Therefore we are willing also to accept customs and conventions, norms and values that we actually do not agree on. We expect greater benefit for ourselves if we act according to them all the same.
“We” is not utterly correct in this context. As we stated before, there are humans who care less or almost not at all about their outward appearance, their social behaviour, their adherence to social norms and values. These are people who see no need to care about their reputation.
This is either due to their general unsociability – of course not all humans are equally sociable, some enjoy aloneness more than others – or due to their already high social status. Since they are so socially respected, they do not need to stick to every rule of conduct.
On the contrary, most trend or fashion alterations arise from these people, so called trendsetters, changing a social convention. We owe these people, who could afford disapproving and acting against societal conventions, mores or values, and who actually did so, all changes of societal conception, so called paradigm changes. We, in our western hemisphere, owe them the abolishment of slavery, gender equality, the equivalence of blacks and all other human rights. For there were times, when raising one’s voice against racism, slavery, discrimination, for instance, would have been utterly socially disapproved and punished, and there are still many places today, where humans have to fight for their basic human rights. There we need those humans who do not care about their outward appearance but fight for their convictions in order to accomplish a change of societal mindset.
Our society needs nonconformists whose sense of justice is more distinctive than their vanity, not only in terms of grand paradigm changes but also in everyday life. We need pupils in school or employees at workplace, who speak out against mobbing and discrimination, instead of knuckling under peer pressure, obeying the norms of a social subsystem as school class or workplace, which often differ extensively from basic human and civil rights.
Concretely, if some pupils of a class are maltreating a classmate or a defenceless teacher, and every pupil who disapproves this situation diminishes his social status, there need to be pupils who do not care about this and expose the injustice that is happening to the victim, there need to be these pupils who arouse their classmates’ sense of justice and sensitise them to the falseness of the situation in consideration of humanism.
We need brave citizens who raise their voices and, betimes, raise their fists against the injustice that is surrounding them. The case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death by a man in 1964, while 38 neighbours were observing the murder from their windows or hearing the victim’s screams, without anyone intervening or even calling the police or the ambulance, is only the tip of a huge iceberg of cruelties attended in public with a mass of humans playing the role of a passive observer, denying their humanistic heritage, denying their cultural basics, that discriminate us from animals, only being part of a huge mass of humans going with the flow without reflecting what they are doing.
There are great role models in history. Humans who stood up for their convictions and often faced death. Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC after he was not willing to withdraw his enlightening moral philosophy. He was condemned because he had spoken out against then Athenian conventions. Jesus of Nazareth spent his life integrating the condemned and helping the ones that no one else was willing to help. Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln fought against U.S. slavery; Thoreau besides was a lifelong nonconformist and disapproved for example the United States’ acting in the Mexican-American war. His wonderful essay about Civil Disobedience, published in 1849, influenced Mahatma Gandhi, who fought for India’s independence without using violence, what made him stand under pressure from both the British and violent-prone Indians, just like Martin Luther King, who led the African-American Civil Right Movement in 1950s and 60s. Both were shot, Gandhi by an extreme fellow countryman. The cruelties of National Socialism did not prevent the masses in Nazi Germany from taking part in Jew discrimination or pretending ignorance; fortunately there were also counter-examples, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the siblings Scholl. They resisted the Nazi regime and died for their convictions. Aung San Suu Kyi got the Nobel Peace Price in 1991 for fighting for democracy in her home country Burma. She is still active against the military junta.
This extraordinary list of names that is, of course, anything but complete, should show us that our social behaviour is not determined and it should encourage each one of us to consider and reflect closely their social behaviour as to correctness of conformity.