Why do we care what people think of us?

Tired of people staring at your uni-brow? Sick of getting weird looks when you break out the Harlem Shake at your nephew’s daycare? Wish you could just strut around in a pair of sexy yoga pants without someone judging your real-estate-tax-paying derriere?

There’s a very good reason why we care what people think. We need this in order to establish social norms, and social norms are vital for a functional society. I’m not bashing individualism, so keep on rockin’ that vintage tee of your favorite obscure indie band. But in order to function together in this world, we need to create a society based on a few ground rules for being humane, such as no murdering, raping, stealing, or claiming that turkey bacon is just as good.

As social creatures, we feel the need to belong to some kind of community with like-minded people. This could take the form of coworkers, kickball teams, churches and a million other things. This desire to belong probably stems from back in the tribal days, when having a group to take care of each other was important for not getting eaten by lions. If fellow spear-wielders actually like me and I play by their rules, then they’re more likely to save me from bloody death. And one of their rules just might be to wear matching tribal loincloths. Now, I love customizing the curtain on my heat-seeking love missile as much as the next guy, but I’d gladly sacrifice a little individuality to avoid being turned into kitty litter.

So we want people to like us. That’s why we’re instilled with likable traits such as empathy, compassion, responsibility and reciprocity. That’s why we feel bad when we lie or hurt other people. (Most of us, anyway. This doesn’t apply to about 3% of men and 1% of women.[1] The scientific term for these people is “assholes”.)

But what happens in today’s world where we’re not in immediate danger of being eaten by a lion? Caring what other people think too much can prevent us from living our lives the way we want. In general, life is easier when you care less than the other person. The one who cares less holds the power, and this applies to everything from relationships to business negotiations. That person walking down the street giving you judging eyes for whatever reason doesn’t care about you at all, so you probably shouldn’t care about him or her either. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a big difference between not caring what others think and being different for the sake of attention. The former is very rare, but there are a very large number of people who are the latter but claim to be the former.

But being different on purpose is arguably a great way to go. Sure, the more extreme you go, the more people will think you’re a douchebag, but haters gon’ hate. OkCupid did a great study on this. You can either be accepted by everyone or loved by a few, but probably not both. When you polarize people’s opinions of you, you’ll get the opposite extremes with people who think you’re awesome and people who hate your guts. But maybe that’s a good thing, since that ultimately creates more meaningful connections based on having more specific things in common with the people who love you. Instead of trying to please everyone, why not make some devoted fans and just let the rest keep on eating their hater tots? If you just cut out the haters, then you’ll just be surrounded by people who think you’re awesome. Isn’t that better than being around a bunch of people who think you’re okay? So to all you guidos out there, ignore the fact that America hates you, and just keep on sporting that burnt tangerine look. Because someone, somewhere, is dying for you to give her the spray-tanned D.

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