Who cares what people think?

Bausmith / MCT

New York Times

Let’s say you’re turning 40 and you realize you want to leave accounting and become a hip-hop artist. People will say you’re having a pathetic midlife crisis, but should you do it anyway?

Let’s say you’re on the phone in a crowded place and you want to tell your buddy a dirty joke, which may offend the people around you. Should you tell it?

Let’s say you have religious or political beliefs that make you unpopular. Should you hide or change them?

Let’s say you are deeply in love with a person your friends dislike. Should you dump that person?

I ask these questions because I think that we, as a society, are extremely confused about this issue: When should you care about what other people think and when should you not?

Officially, we tell each other we don’t care. We are heirs to a 19th-century rugged individualism that says the individual should stand strong and self-reliant, not conform to the crowd. We are also heirs to a 20th-century ethic of authenticity that holds that each of us is called to be true to our sincere inner self, and that if we bend to please others we are failing in some fundamental way.

But, of course, in reality we do care what other people think. We are wired to connect, to seek the admiration of others. We want to be part of communities, which means obeying community norms.

Moreover, we live at a time of intense social insecurity. The Internet creates instant feedback, letting you know when people approve of you and when they don’t. We are also living during an epidemic of conditional love. Many parents bestow or withdraw affection depending on how well their children are achieving, producing millions of young people without secure emotional foundations, who pine for any kind of approval.

I admit I’m confused myself about when you should pay attention to or ignore outside opinion. But I'll throw out four different ways of thinking about the question, corresponding to the four questions at the top of this column.

First, the hip-hop artist question. Here it might be best to defer to public opinion. People tend to make poor decisions at moments of life transition, so at these moments, lean in the direction of respecting to the wisdom of the crowd. Have a midlife crisis, but in less stereotypical form.

Then, the question of the dirty joke. This is a question of manners. Here, too, it’s probably a good idea to give priority to other people’s views. The manners and mores of a community are a shared possession. When you violate social norms, you are not only being rude to people around you, but you are making it more likely that others will violate the norms in the future. You are tearing the social fabric.

In most circumstances, therefore, we owe it to our group to usually follow the rules that help people behave considerately. Put social niceties above individual desire. Don’t tell the joke.

Then the question of the unpopular belief. In this case, it is clearly wrong to sacrifice some of your conviction for immediate popularity. Basically you are trading in something deep for something shallow.

Most of our core beliefs originated with some great figure from the distant past. These ideas, creeds or faiths were then nurtured by generations of other people, who are also now mostly dead. They created a transcendent tradition, which we embrace and hope in turn to pass along to generations as yet unborn. No sensible person would ever be happy betraying the approval of the admired dead just to win some passing approval in the here and now.

Finally, the question of the unpopular fiancé. This is tricky because it depends on what kind of feedback other people are offering. If they are talking about your boyfriend’s status (he’s too ugly; he’s got a bad job) then outside opinion doesn’t matter.

But they may be observing something about the internal nature of your relationship that you are too blinded by passion to see. Maybe they can discern that he hurts you in this way or that. In this case, outside advice is not about approval; it’s about wisdom at a time when your emotions are clouding your judgment.

To sum up, I can’t find any universal rules about when to defer to outside approval. It depends on the circumstances. It does seem that people should defer less to public approval as they age. At 15, it’s normal to be socially insecure. By 45, unless you’re in a crisis, you should have distilled enough ancient wisdom to have inner criteria.

Plus, sometimes it’s smart to attract ridicule for its own sake. You'll learn that it really does you no harm if you don’t let it. Your friends will laugh at you. And accept you in the end.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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