Yay or Nay: You Can Only Be Yourself in Public If Yourself is Socially Acceptable

In this month’s Yay or Nay segment, our writers Julia and Hannah tackle a more serious topic that has been brewing within many people’s thoughts. Without a doubt, we have all been exposed to various types of encouragement regarding genuinity and being true to oneself. However, wherein lies the boundaries of being one’s self if society frowns upon it?  In today’s article, our writers will be exploring whether or not there are limits to being oneself in public and to what extent society is truly accepting towards socially deviant behaviours. 

Yay

Most of us would like to believe ourselves to be independent of external influence, especially when it comes to something as foundational as the way we express our innermost attitudes. However, in truth, I do not believe that it is possible for someone to express themselves sincerely in public if their inherent nature forsakes social acceptability. 

A person’s existence in society is arguably laid out by the social roles that are expected of them and these roles should go hand-in-hand with conformity to social norms. Thus, if one decides to reject conformity to social norms, they would not merely be rejecting the moral grounds created by society, but also the role that they were supposed to play, thereby rejecting their place in society too. 

A society is defined as a community or social system which maintains a certain threshold of order. Hence, since social norms are preserved to maintain said order- wouldn’t civilised society cease to exist if we all decide to renounce social norms entirely to embrace our true selves which are socially unacceptable? Most societies view socially unacceptable behaviours as ones that are harmful to others or to oneself, like harassment, abuse, and rudeness. These are the kinds of behaviours that can destroy any sort of communal peace and should not be warranted by any member of society. Hence, if society were to accept personal indulgence in socially unacceptable behaviours, these sort of disruptive behaviours would also be justifyingly acceptable. Blindly condoning and accepting people to be themselves (even if their behaviour is horrid) would leave people no room for self-improvement as they would feel entitled to social acceptance and disregard any need to review how their actions could impact others. Just imagine a world where we allow this to happen; a world where there are seemingly no consequences to reprimandable behaviour and where misconduct runs rampant.

There will always be remnants of thoughts in our minds that propounds the idea that it is unjust for ourselves to feel like we must mask our true self in order to appeal to the mass ideals of the model person. Nonetheless, these sort of urges can seem individualistic when you fail to realise that you do not live in a bubble where you are the sole inhabitant. There are people that exist beyond your sole presence, and your actions implicate their lives too. If we were to behave in a socially inappropriate manner, it would most likely cause at the very least, an amount of discomfort to be felt by someone else. Let’s be honest, most of us are unaware of the toxic traits that we bear, and so being your socially unacceptable self in public would be imposing on other people’s boundaries. Sure, we may complain that society is taking away our ability to express our earnest selves, but if it is in order to protect others from a cycle of toxicity- isn’t that a blessing in disguise? Would it not also be selfish on our part to force society to accept ourselves as we are, even if it can cause harm to others?

Nevertheless, we often blame society for the limitations of the freedom of our behaviour, but even by analysing this from a more personal perspective, people are inclined to act in a way which is appropriate to social contexts. This may stem from our need to appear socially desirable to others as it would elevate our reputation and make us seem as though we are truly integrated within society. Moreover, there is also the looming risk of negative social sanctions which would most definitely ensue upon the manifestation of inappropriate behaviour. This might be a rather strong determinant that deters one from exhibiting their true self as people generally yearn to belong in a group, and the mere thought of losing that ‘privilege’ is enough to coerce themselves into acting in a socially acceptable manner. After all, most people fear isolation, and behaving in socially unacceptable ways would guarantee that one is dissociated from civilised society. Therefore, as much as we would like to point the blame to society, we tend to stand in the way of truly expressing ourselves too.

However, I must acknowledge how detrimental the rigidity of certain social norms are, and how they do not allow people the room to be different, despite the harmlessness of their behaviour. Many might argue that social norms and social acceptability erases any sort of individuality, but what sort of individuality are we speaking of? The main issue is that people tend to justify toxic behaviour as personality “quirks”, which should never be socially acceptable. My outlook on this matter is that socially acceptable behaviour should solely remain as conducts that are deleterious to other members of society. Societal disapproval towards harmless “oddities” or “weirdness” should not stand as valid bases for social acceptability, and should instead be inadvertently deemed discriminatory. Standing by this definition alone, I maintain my stance that one can express themselves openly if, and only if, they align themselves with social norms that differentiate between harmfulness and individuality.

~ Julia, thinks that acceptance of individuality has boundaries.

Nay

As a child I loved going to the beach. There are a lot of things you can do at a beach. An approximate one-hundred-foot wide haven for sandcastle enthusiasts and self-proclaimed seashell-collecting connoisseurs like myself, but I think there was always something more than the sand, sea and the pure island-princess vibes that I loved. Just staring out into the vast big blue, aimlessly watching, feeling, the crashing of waves followed by the recuperating silence after in an endless loop was pretty therapeutic and grounding as well. 

The ocean made me find my bearings. It made me feel small and insignificant – in a good way. In a way that kind of makes one feel liberated, in the grander scheme of things. That every supposed “unforgivable” quirk, every cringe-worthy moment shared in time, every painfully “life-changing” tragic moment we’ve ever experienced is at its core, just another shout into the void of existence. Just another capillary wave, awkwardly treading along the curvature of the sand, as inconsequential as the fizzing bubbles that eat away at the sandy edges in the aftermath of a tidal wave. The vastness was familiar. 

Society as a whole is vast. Approximately 7.7 billion people make up an ocean of capillary waves. If we were to close our eyes and imagine the ratios of weightage attributed to every action, word, or thought we’ve ever had, we’d probably be dealing with a string of decimals. That in itself already proves how little a fellow conscious being would care to evaluate an assumption to our every action. How the presumable capacity of care every person has would not even be able to feasibly accommodate an analysis of personality for every individual ever spoken to.

It makes you wonder- all things set in motion- how much do people even care about the supposed weirdness that another individual harbours? At first it sounds pretty bleak, but is it really? When we talk about unapologetically embracing our true selves in public and think about how every other person is probably going through a lifetime of different experiences- preoccupied with a completely polar set of circumstances and choices, how much more of a care could they give to the random rainbow-haired girl on the street, scream-singing My Chemical Romance’s Welcome to the Black Parade (unironically)? Perhaps, realistically speaking, there would be about a moment’s worth of what-the-everloving-heck-is-going-on staring (maybe even glaring) in the direction of said girl, but over the next 48 hours? Over the rest of the week? I doubt anyone would even remember their face!

Based on a study by Canli et al., people tend to remember events better when they encounter an individual emotional experience during said event. In this context, people only care about the way you behave if it directly affects them in a substantial way. Hence, if being yourself in public equates to being a menace to society, maybe don’t act on your impulse to take a casual stroll to your local grocery store to pick up eggs and milk – in the nude. The former case in point, if the scream-singing rainbow-haired girl had caused the deafness of an elderly person, perhaps then she would be a villainous image immortalized in their mind until the earthly forces take its course and the individual returns to dust. Contrastingly, if a personality trait you constitute as terribly unconventional and totally embarrassing is about as surprising as consuming spoonfuls of wasabi on its own, or consistently dressing up like a Victorian mage, you don’t have much to worry about in terms of being particularly memorable in the long run. 

If even after I’ve said all this, and you still feel apprehensive towards embracing that cottagecore-mysterious-garden-witch lifestyle or snort-laughing at every corny pun, it might be of interest to wonder about what justifies as ‘socially acceptable’. When broken down to its two base words: social and accept- the term “socially acceptable” really means what the average group of individuals representative of the major population can tolerate. Since society as we know it is ever-changing and every trend ever known has been in constant evolution, what can be deemed as “socially acceptable” is almost meaningless.  Behaviour that is considered publicly “normal” now, probably won’t be considered publicly “normal” in the next five years. Why should public opinion be tied to a person’s choice to carry out that said behaviour? (That is, of course, given that the behaviour does not endanger anyone’s life or encroach on their right to live safely and comfortably as well.)

It could also be argued that what constitutes as “socially acceptable” is culturally biased. Take for example wearing shoes within one’s house. Western culture makes it apparent that not taking off your shoes when entering another’s home is common knowledge. However, in Asian households, this act could be taken disrespectful. This proves that what is “socially acceptable” in one place is different from what is “socially acceptable” in another. Hence, if the phrase “socially acceptable” differs so much between groups of people and generations, how much importance should we even give this concept? If trying to live within the boundaries of normalcy only exhausts one’s ability to retain individuality, why should we care so much about what other people have to say about our behaviour?

 If we all agreed to live by a set list of rules that deem a person “socially acceptable”, think about how rigid and boring life would be. How many supposed “unconventional” innovations or concepts we would miss out on because they didn’t conform to what was “socially acceptable” at that time. Trying to live within the concept of social normalness only opposes evolution itself. If billions of years ago, society enforced that wearing clothes as opposed to walking around stark naked was not socially acceptable, think about where we would be today. Terrifying, if you ask me.

Thus, I stand by my stance that behaving “socially acceptable” is not just an exercise in futility but also, a complete waste of creativity. 

~Hannah, believes that the concept of being “socially acceptable” does not exist

In a nutshell, it seems that there will always be a tug-of-war of opinions and ideas when it comes to living life as an ever-evolving human being. Whether you decide to respectfully abide by the unsaid laws of normalcy that be or completely resist the boundaries that only exist to chain your individuality, is ultimately a choice that lies in each of us. It all comes down to the priorities we each dearly hold onto.

By: Julia Rosalyn and Hannah Rahel

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