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09:conformity or adaptability  |  by tim sunderman 
 
 
We all like to think of ourselves as individualistic. We'd like to adopt the mantle of non-conformist. After all, conformity implies a lack of thought or free will, a weakness of character that buckles under the weight of social expectation. Conformists are, at best, sheepish non-agents that skitter along without consequence. At worst, they abandon their conscientious and adopt phrases like, "I was just following orders." Or so we would like to think.
 
We look around on a crowded street, in a theatre, on a train platform, or on an elevator, and not only do we see a high degree of conformity among people's actions, most likely we can also observe our own actions as being equally conformist. What does that say not only about people, but about ourselves? Imagine walking on to an elevator and turning around with your back to the doors and facing the other elevator riders just to be non-conformist. Though that may be a humorous social experiment, it is such a subtle but obvious breach of social behavior that it may well be very intimidating to the other riders.
 
So, it is not hard to see that certain social situations call for conformity to social expectations. But this order typically has more to do with the flow of masses of people in somewhat confined situations. An integrated and ordered motion helps us to be collectively more efficient in all of us getting to where we are going. Additionally, the more crowded people are, the more they withdraw into their own personal space. Note people's angry glances at the self-absorbed loud cell phone conversationalist on a commuter train. In this case, non-conformity is at the expense of others' comfort.
 
But, as with many arguments, the phrasing or context of the discussion is off the mark. This is not so much a question of conformity as it is a question of adaptability. We rightfully adapt our behavior to the circumstances that surround us. The social order is not simply a matter of convenience, but a way to elevate our capabilities in an otherwise chaotic environment.
 
 
 
 
Conformity or Adaptability
 
By Tim  Sunderman
 
October 2009
Conversely, in a more meaningful discussion of conformity, there are the more personal forms of self expression, that though they have no meaningful impact on social order, they can incur very similar derisions. Teenagers famously, and perhaps comically, love to experiment with anti-social self expression. Green hair, pants strategically torn to look incidental, quirky word phrases ― all serve the valued purpose of breaking away from the previous generation to form a new identity. And though their parents may typically react with frustration, the older generation smiles knowingly at another iteration of the cycle. But teenage peer pressure exerts great force to conform to their new brand of non-conformity. From hippies to new wave to grunge to hip hop to surf to jock to preppie, and on and on, it doesn't matter what the name is, these become the new styles of the same pattern. The unfortunate part is how much self esteem young people sacrifice to gain the approval of their peers. And as young people become adults and enter the working world, the green hair or the expressive fashions go away, but the yearning for peer acceptance remains.
 
Self approval for many people is replaced by the desire for social approval, and the long slow process of eroding one's personal compass for the nebulous abstract ideal of acceptance starts to harden. One must ask, who are these people from whom we seek approval? ― people we've never met and most likely never will meet? The notion is absurd. And I am not talking about a manner of dress in the work place where one's appearance is an outward demonstration of being in step with the direction of the business (assuming it is a reputable business). That is simply a matter of adapting to one's professional standards. To wear a polka dot jump suit and a red rubber nose in any profession other than clown is indeed non-conformist, but likely borderline psychotic.
 
So, the real question is to what degree do we adapt our unique self expression to the culture within which we exist. After all, clothes are for more than warmth. They become the most immediate form of communication of our personality, in other words, a social expression. And then follows our manner of speech, our musical preferences, and so on. We all should be socially relevant. We cannot each make up our own language if we are to be effectual in our speech. But it seems we generally put far too much attention on conforming to social norms rather than self expression. Be yourself. Push your personal expression to the edges of social acceptability. It is a way to exercise your self esteem. Diversity engages the richness of our collective expression. We grow to dislike those who simply do what they are told. We do indeed despise sheep who skitter along without consequence. Don’t be one of them.
 
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vhcle-09:life

Tim Sunderman is an illustrator who is also a fulltime college graphic design instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Never content in a single medium, he has experimented broadly with photography, video, writing, and even marble sculpture. But graphic design still pays the bills.
 
 
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Photo and Model: April Irene Fredrikson
 
 
Read other articles by Tim Sunderman as well as view his photography work:
 
vhcle-09:life
“We all should be socially relevant. We cannot each make up our own language if we are to be effectual in our speech. But it seems we generally put far too much attention on conforming to social norms rather than self expression. Be yourself. Push your personal expression to the edges of social acceptability. It is a way to exercise your self esteem...”
April Irene Fredrikson