Text by Cherie Tseng
In a series of studies he captures in his book Invisible Influence, Wharton professor Jonah Berger shows that we naturally seek to conform to the norm, even if we may not fully agree. TLDR: it is easier for us to agree with the majority — go with the flow, do as the Romans do, even if we might hold a differing opinion.
The urge to conform, Berger elucidates, is as built into our nature as it is to naturally seek to level with another on common ground. Sameness, being in with the in-crowd, being on trend, are all social markers we prize. To contextualise, Mediakix data estimates that the influencer marketing industry is on track to be worth up to US$15 billion ($20.1 billion) by end 2021, up from US$8 billion in 2019.
We see, we want, we copy.
No one likes to think of themselves as a conformist but, alas, we conform without even realising it. It should not be too surprising given that our whole lives are a series of Venn diagrams, where the idea of a sharedness is often prized, lauded and desired.
At the highest echelons of religion, we are told to aspire to be God-like. Nation building itself is predicated on a series of shared values, ethos and common goals. In Singapore, we have five shared values, and number four on that list starkly reminds us — consensus, not conflict. Even companies and schools cleave to a shared vision, promoting a shared ethos of behaviour and being. Good teams, the experts tell us, are built on a shared, respectful mutuality.
In real life, discovering where we overlap with another helps forge a quick point of reference. Mutual friends on Facebook helps us evaluate if a new connection is worth pursuing. Online dating is predicated on the same.
Want to find your dream job? Well, discover your ikigai (or “reason for being”): that illusive ultra-overlapped core of four circles represent what you love, what you are good at, what you are paid for and what the world needs. Overlap all four — passion, mission, profession and vocation — and you’ll finally unlock happiness.
It is small wonder so many of us constantly feel exhausted, underachieving and unhappy.
Don’t get me wrong: there can be value and even some version of transcendental beauty in aspiring to live in the Venn overlaps. It helps us feel connected, like we belong and are part of something. It is comfortable, safe. Yet, when we dive deeper, we run the risk of being trapped in an in-group echo chamber that can be downright unhealthy.
Societal and political rebels, understandably, tend to have a slightly bad reputation. The hubris of history often casts them as troublemakers, contrarians and outcasts, who seem content to challenge and complicate the straightforward. They buck trends, question the given. It is tiresome, troublesome, but necessary.
We only have to look at science, technology and business to appreciate the value of the rebel — masters of reinvention and innovation who upend how we see the world. Being called a Disruptor is a badge of honour. Want to succeed? Have a blue ocean strategy where competition is light because the market is new. “First, break all the rules,” encourages the good people at Gallup. Be an outlier, encourages author and thinker Malcolm Gladwell.
We need to take this same chutzpah, this gungho, into the social, and dare I say, political, realm. Living in an echo chamber of our own construction is limiting in the short term, divisive in the mid-term and dangerous in the long run.
For all of the sameness and confluence society seems to aspire to, we live in one of the most disparate and discordant times. Socio-economic parity is a gaping chasm: emerging from the depths of Covid-19, Singapore registered some of her most rampant Good Class Bungalow sales, while national median income levels dropped, most drastically in the bottom 10 percent of society.
Race, religion and gender rights discussions that used to be shushed, relegated to backroom discourse, have now entered mainstream fray. Everyone has an opinion and no one quite knows what to do with the cacophony. It has become untenable and even dangerous for us to continue to flog the “cling to our commonality”.
In overly focusing on what unites us, we inadvertently ignore what makes us different. Or worse, in the face of differences, we deploy the most self-centred, rigid and passive-aggressive response in the face of difference — we agree to disagree; the most wielded conversation ender we convince ourselves is a legit communication tool.
Someone I met working in the disability-inclusion space put it succinctly: “To integrate, we must first differentiate. It is in the uncommon ground that we find growth. It is in daring to venture into the less palatable that we can begin to truly have a meaningful conversation about the things that divide us, that define us.”
If we want society to grow, thrive and flourish, we cannot be afraid to have difficult conversations about the things that divide us. It will take a trifecta of genuine empathy, curiosity and humility for this to work — not something many of us have in droves, but we all need to start somewhere.
Cherie Tseng is COO at a Singapore fintech company, mother of three and editor at The Birthday Collective