What Is the Price of Conformity?
It was the winter of 2013 when I went to a party in costume with a group of girlfriends. It was a circus of music and passion, as the event organizer defined it. There was a specific dress code to attend the event that might have been considered a bit extreme—and certainly not adequate for a leader, especially if the leader is a woman.
The night was an explosion of music, a very sensorial and sensual experience. On my way back home, I was stopped on the Italian streets by the police. I was not driving fast nor I had been drinking, so I was relaxed because I knew I had not broken any law. I pulled down the window of my very expensive German car, with a relaxed smile. When the two policemen doing their job on a boring, cold night saw at the driver’s seat of this expensive car a young lady with heavy makeup and a bizarre costume, I could see judgement on their faces.
Sure, their job is to judge situations, and yet does an appearance not conforming to their idea of how somebody driving such a car should look justify the way I was treated? After handing them my Italian ID, I was asked if I was Italian, if I spoke Italian, and if I had the permit to be in Italy, because my name is not of Italian origin. All the answers were under their eyes on an authentic document released by the official authorities. Then they assumed I was probably an escort and asked if the car was mine. I was questioned why was I dressed that way. When I was asked what my profession was, they did not believe that I was an executive at a major global company. My appearance didn’t match their image of someone in a leadership position. I was not a man. I was not old. I was not ugly.
When I told this story, I wasn’t met by sympathy or empathy for the discrimination I faced. I was reminded that a young single woman in my role should have paid more attention to her image. I guess I was guilty for not conforming to what everybody around me was expecting. It was not relevant that I did not break any law or committed any unethical or immoral act. The matter was, I had not behaved according to the norms.
Throughout our lives, we are taught to conform with the illusion of being part of a crowd. There are obvious false benefits linked to conforming to social rules, like how to dress or how to act. Growing up, while we are still understanding and making sense of our identity, it is a relief to feel accepted and part of a majority. The pressure only increases as we grow up and enter the workplace. If we then have ambitions to climb an organization’s ladder, the parts we have to carve out to conform and be admitted in a circle are huge.
Conformity has a high price for individuals, businesses, and the entire society. I am not saying we should abandon all rules. Society needs organization and rules to function. However where is the balance? The real question we should ask is if in name of conformity, we are sacrificing authenticity. If conformity conflicts with our beliefs and preferences, we are out of balance. It requires overcoming a lot of resistance to exit the cycle of conformity, as we all need to be validated, accepted, acknowledged.
We apparently find this validation more frequently or easily by sticking to the norms rather then being a non-conformist. We are trained to walk the usual path, to weigh the negative consequences and discomfort rather than the gain. Hence, we have a tendency to maintain the status quo.
Look around to see the examples of this behavior. Starting from always driving or walking the usual path to work, to following a dress code or the latest fashion trend that makes us apparently acceptable and invisible.
Conformity decreases our engagement at work and in life and reduces our productivity, as it does not provide variety and kills innovation; it is almost impossible to think in new ways while attempting to conform. To name a few non-conformists who changed forever how we think about certain things: Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Salvador Dali, Virginia Woolf…What do these people inspire in you? They instill in me the courage to keep on a path of authenticity and integration. This path might be lonely for a while. I believe that if we want to live in a more inclusive world, the path is not the one to create more rules for everybody to be equal; rather, the path is about rebelling against the stereotypes and norms that create fragmentation of self.
I am asking you to stand up against conformity and feel comfortable walking the path of non-conformity. A path that might need to be walked solo till you meet others on your same mission or who are inspired by your courage. There is room for great diversity and no need to make comparisons that flatten reality. We can still applaud others and choose our own way. The difference between choosing to conform or choosing our unique way is that only one will make us feel complete.
Previously posted on: https://fatemebanishoeib.com/2016/11/09/what-is-the-price-of-conformity/