Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peer Approval

Most people have a natural desire for acceptance. They want to be well-liked and perceived favorably by those they interact with. This is a reasonable and healthy desire. However, one simple fact of life is that you can't please everyone. And, even supposing you could please everyone, you really shouldn't. For this reason, it is crucially important to determine whose opinions and perspectives actually matter, and whose don't. Most people's opinions and perceptions fall into the second category. Because of this, I think that the best mental state to adopt towards most people's opinions of you is one of complete indifference. If they like you, that's nice. So what? If they think you are stupid, that's fine. So what?

There are four main components that factor into people's assessment of you. First, there is who you actually are. Secondly, there is how you present yourself. Third, there is how a person perceives you. Fourth, there is how a person judges you based on their perception of you. As you can see it's a pretty lengthy signal pathway, and therefore there is a lot of possible interference. Because of this, there are numerous reasons why a person might like or dislike you. A person may dislike you because of the way you present yourself and interact, even though you may be more likable beneath the surface. A person may dislike you because they have a skewed view of you, and don't correctly interpret how you present yourself. A person may dislike you because of their own internal standards, which you don't measure up to.

Considering these various factors and their possible effects on public approval, there are really only two sorts of actions you can take to alter your standings in someone else's eyes. The opinions and perceptual accuracy of another person cannot be directly affected, which leaves you having control only over who you actually are and how you choose to interact. For this reason, it is important to be aware of who you are and have a clear image of the personal ideal that you are moving towards. Also, it is good to cultivate a high-level of social awareness, so that you are conscious of how you interact with others and how they respond to you. This awareness will allow to you adjust your social calibration to various groups and settings, so that you will be versatile in interacting with various types of groups. One-on-one conversations are very different than group interactions. Chatting over coffee is very different from meeting people in a bar, which is quite different from chatting with people at church, which offers a very different sort of group dynamic from a road trip in a crowded car. Likewise, interacting with intellectuals requires a very different sort of social skillset than getting along well with rambunctious youngsters, party-crazy college students or blue-collar workers. There are no one-size-fits-all methods of interaction that will work equally well with every group of people, which is why social awareness and adaptability are vital.

Fundamentally, likability comes down to several things. For the most part people will like you if you are friendly, have a positive attitude towards them, conform to the social norms of the group and avoid stepping on anyone's toes. Likewise, if you appear unfriendly, seem to have a negative attitude towards someone, show a lack of understanding of or disregard for group social norms or make comments that bother someone, then people are more likely to dislike you. These are the basic rules for likability. Being aware of this allows you to intentionally choose how to interact in any group.

Though in many cases, acting in a likable manner is most desirable, there are some times when you might want to choose to act in a contrary manner. In a positive, healthy peer group, there is rarely any reason or need to behave contrarily. However, in a peer group that supports unhealthy lifestyle decisions and shames those who refuse to participate, nonconformity is the best response. A couple of months ago a friend invited me to a holiday barbecue she was hosting. Since I had just met her recently, I didn't know any of her friends and I had no idea what sort of party it would be. She mentioned there would be alcohol, and that certainly didn't bother me. However, when I actually showed up, I found out that it was a very hedonistic sort of party and that most of them were crazy party animals. There was lots of drinking, drug use, smoking and sensual dancing. Lots of people were taking shots of alcohol, and one fellow asked me to take a shot of vodka with him. I immediately declined and told him that I don't do shots. He quickly informed me that it was very disrespectful to refuse to take a shot, and that I was disrespecting him. Confident in my stance and unaffected by his attempts to shame me, I repeated that I don't do shots and then grabbed another hamburger before going to chat with someone else. Though it certainly wasn't my favorite party, I met a couple nice people and had a good time. By the time I left, a couple people liked me, a couple people disliked me and most people still held a neutral opinion of me.

What concerns me more than what other people think of me is how I act. In the case of those who disliked me, they disliked me because I refused to participate in their drunken revelry. However, since I reject their standards of approval and stand by my actions as being wise and righteous, their unfavorable opinion of me carries no weight. I don't care. In this case I didn't go out of my way to show active disapproval of their lifestyle and carnal hedonism, but even supposing I had, there would be nothing wrong with such a course of action. Sometimes righteous living involves a passive rejection of certain worldviews, and sometimes it involves active opposition to certain ways of acting.

Jesus Christ is the prime example of someone who lived intentionally and always acted righteously. Some people loved Him. Some people hated His guts. Some people remained indifferent. Yet, Jesus was never swayed by people's opinions. Instead, He chose to carry out the Father's will in all things and live righteously, without compromise. Jesus never concerned Himself with how likable He was. So, sometimes He dined with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners without shaming or judging them. Other times, He rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism. Sometimes He showed repentant people mercy and exhorted them to walk in the path of righteousness. Other times, he fashioned a whip and drove people out of the temple for disrespecting God's house. Jesus' main goal was righteous, assertive, consistent living. This resulted in Him being fiercely loved and violently hated.

As the moral example for our lives, we should all strive to adopt the same perspective that Jesus had. Right living is the goal. Approval from God is the one thing that should motivate our actions. People's opinions and the approval of our peer group should hold no power over the ways we choose to act and relate to people. The opinions that we should heed are those of role models and authority figures who have wisdom and insight. Parents, close friends, family members, church elders and mentors can offer valuable insights into how we should act and think about life. Everyone else's opinions really don't matter. Feel free to be likable when you want to be, and enjoy nonconformity when the situation calls for it. No matter what you do, be intentional and refuse to compromise your values.


  1. Great advice! Do the right thing, without fear, period.

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