Tuesday, 4 May 2010

NORMAL - I'm normal. Are You?

What is it that we call 'normal' in our society ?

The other day an acquaintance found it necessary to remind me that some of my tastes, preferences, priorities, ideas and opinions, are slightly outside the usual, what she called ‘everyday, normal’ range; when she noticed my face, she quickly added ‘but in a nice way’, so I forgave her instantly. Apparently, she found my enthusiasm for opera and poetry, my willingness to discuss rural life and the accompanying, lower case ’c,’ conservative attitudes robustly, and my equal unwillingness to dedicate a large part of my life to village concerns rather alarming. The fact that that doesn’t worry me seemed to disturb her even more.

She was right, of course, I can quite see that.

We think of ourselves as liberal and open-minded, we understand and feel sympathetic towards everybody and everything.  We practice tolerance.

But what happens when this tolerance comes up against people who look, behave and act outside the parameters of what is generally seen as the norm, who provoke our sense of decency and custom, who are simply different from others?

Being concerned about how society sees us, how we want to be seen, is this question still relevant in today’s world, where anything goes? I remember the time when parents and teachers reminded me of what is and isn't 'done', how I should look and behave to please convention. How many of us experienced and remember the phrase "what will people think"?

Who determines what normal is, who defines normal and not normal?

Basically, the majority of people want to be seen as normal, be part of a set, avoid sticking out like a sore thumb, avoid being instantly, recognizably different. It’s comfy and safe being one of us, belonging.

There are as many ways of belonging as there are of being different.

Every parent has had  cause to say “what do you think you are wearing?” Every child has, at some time, replied, “Mum, Dad, this is normal, this is what everybody wears. You wouldn’t understand”. This difference in personal taste goes on throughout life; while we stay broadly within the appropriate grouping, personal preferences matter little. We are still recognizably normal. Whatever way of life we choose, we will still fit some pigeonhole or other. We may get stared at for the way we look, be ridiculed for our opinions, what we eat, even, but either we pay little or no attention, or we conform.

But what happens when we are disabled, mentally or physically? When we bear the visible scars of impairment, when we ‘show up’ as different. When we are not 'normal' ?

We all try very hard to stay fit; consider the fitness mania. The moment we are ill, many hide away. If at all possible, we pretend that nothing is wrong; if we can’t, we feel ashamed. Why should the disabled person feel ashamed for being different, why avoid eye contact on an equal level, lower their gaze?

Considering that a huge percentage of the population will, at some time, suffer from mental illness, why is mental illness still such a taboo? Something to be ashamed of?

Being depressed, sad, disturbed, happens to most people, are we not normal when we suffer? An acquaintance admitted to a family member’s brush with the law quite cheerfully the other day, but the same person hid, for as long as she could, somebody else’s depression. This mental illness was hidden so well, that the sufferer received no help and attempted suicide.

There are still many places today where a person’s sexual orientation is cause for scandal,  censure and condemnation. How appallingly hard it must be to keep such a huge part of your personality a secret. Worse, to feel trapped in the wrong body, unable to do anything about it; having to come to terms with being an outsider, a misfit, abnormal. How does this person cope in the face of Society’s disapproval?

This is where Society itself becomes abnormal. In the mass, it is normal to bay for the blood of a perceived wrong-doer, found guilty or not, there is mass hatred of countries which live to a different code from our own; in the mass, mankind is a very frightening animal indeed. But nobody says, ‘this is not normal’.

Lying politicians, companies who cheat and exploit,  clerics who abuse their calling, nobody calls them abnormal. We say they should be ashamed of themselves, which they obviously are not, as we watch them, or another of their ilk, carry on. Most of the time, there is no punishment to fit the crime.

We tolerate their actions; they are wrong perhaps, even immoral, but still within the bounds of normality.

Or so we say.


  1. Very thought provoking. I was never brought up with instruction that one must toe the line in fact my mothers greatest insult was to describe someone as being very ordinary, another way of classing someone as normal, which was a good job really as I have always been terrible at reading social signals and was constantly misreading things, hence I think my enjoyment of living as a foreigner in a strange land. I have no idea what normal is meant to be here so can carry on being me however abdormal that may seem I get given a lot of freedom by dint of my forgein status for which I will always be grateful.

  2. friko - an excellent discussion. i teach 11 and 12 year-olds and they are obsessed with being themsleves but not if there is any possibility of looking different. a conundrum?! i remind them that they are the only iteration of themselves that will ever exist and that they should celebrate themselves simply for existing. easy words. very very hard to live by. steven

  3. Friko - excellent thoughts to ponder here. I think when we conform we participate in establishing the societal norms. The more of us doing a certain thing, the more normal it looks, and it soon becomes a 'standard' of behavior if you want to 'fit in'.

    We all participate in certain societal norms. It greases the wheel of social interaction if we conform to certain forms of connection and presentation.

    In the developmental stages we all pass through as we age, conformity to the norms - fitting in, are more important to us at some stages than others. Clearly, when we are still unsure of our place in the world, still forming our identity we may be more inclined to adopt what is viewed as 'normal'. The confidence of age and experience confers a marvelous freedom, in that we do not need to measure ourselves by outside standards.

    I consider it a compliment when someone infers I am not 'normal' - although they may not have intended it as such.

    I look forward to reading the comments you get on this subject.

  4. A good and thoughtful post, Friko. When I look about me at what is statistically 'normal' in my country, I'm delighted to find myself mostly abnormal.

  5. Friko, I am afraid that this quick comment will not do justice to the topic you have raised. All the same, here goes.

    I was raised in a different era, in a different part of the United States, when certain practices were considered normal. Many of these practices were not very kind to everyone, but seemed designed to sort of keep various tribes intact.

    By the time I was a young teenager, I had become very uncomfortable with much of the normal that I normally found around me. I was fortunate to attend a college that exposed me to a wider world, and fortunate to be able to relocate to an international city after graduation.

    In this big city, I see many versions of normal. It is a true buffet. I would not want to eat everything available on that buffet, but have found it pretty interesting to see how folks seem to try to sort it all out. Life can be full of exploration.


  6. I've always thought that the best thing that could happen during a person's formative years was to be a bit different. Set a child apart by a thick pair of glasses, a different family dynamic or an overwhelming interest or talent and you'll end up (in my experience) with a person who is more of an independent thinker and perhaps more tolerant of and interested in differences. Along the same lines, I mistrust the group, any clinging to clubbiness or sameness or attitudes that embrace the 'done' thing.
    For all that we pride ourselves, today, on being open to differences there will always be norms of behaviour and some of us will always feel outside. I'm happy to be myself. The words from Hamlet on your sidebar say it all - my mother's most often-quoted lines to us as we grew up.

  7. I saw the word "normal" in google reader, and of course I had to come running. Philosophers and psychologists have written tomes on this subject.

    I'm sometimes in a situation where I think, 'If this is normal, then I'm happy to be a freak', or 'Being annoyed or offended in this situation makes me normal.' -The two thoughts are really the same.

    I certainly can't say what "normal" is, but I'm sure of this: we all together make our world, with everything we do and everything we don't do.

  8. In answer to the question that is the title of this excellent post; Apparently So, no matter how I try for SOME kind of distinction.

  9. hah - I wish I had had a mother like yours. I managed to become weird almost as a reaction to my straight-laced upbringing. Living abroad can be used as a wonderful excuse for being different. I frequently use the phrase "I can't be expected to know, I'm a foreigner", except that I don't often get away with it. I do get some looks though, either pitying or uncertain.

    steven - and surely very hard to understand for 11 and 12 yr olds?
    Being themselves but in the same way that all the others are themselves fits in with the generally accepted wish not to stick out.
    It is quite a paradox for children; one day some of them will truly develop away from the herd, carry on telling them that it is fine to be different.

  10. Bonnie - As always, your comment is wise, well-thought out, to the point and extremely helpful. I wish I could put things as clearly as you do.

    Being different from the norm, even as a child made life quite hard sometimes. When you lack the confidence to be yourself, it is easy to turn aggressive and it takes age and, if you are lucky, a touch of wisdom gained out of experience, to tone down the aggression and
    remain calm in the face of antagonism.

    For any 'different' person, genuinely not caring much about what others think is a blessing.

    Vicki - I don't wish to be rude about your country, having nice blogging friends like you, but some of the images that come across to us are not very flattering. We both know who we are thinking of.
    I am very glad for my American friends to be 'abnormal', although I'd love to think of you as being the 'normal' ones.

    Frances - In a big city like NY, normal doesn't exist. Like you say, it is liberating to be part of a huge melting pot of races, creeds, ideas, a buffet is a very good analogy.
    Since I've lived in the UK, the only place where I have not felt a foreigner, is London. Although here people are very kind and friendly, I am 'forgiven' for being different rather than that my difference is ignored.

  11. Pondside - You are right, of course, take a child and set it apart, for whatever reason, and it will turn out to be an independent spirit. On the other hand, being different can also break you when you are young, it can turn you into a real misfit, who might look in from the outside but never 'belong'. Children are cruel, they soon sniff out the alien. And then they might turn up on your client list.

    I am pleased to see that you have noticed my Hamlet quote. It really is my favourite quote. How Polonius ever came to say these words is a miracle.

    Mark Kerstetter - Yes, we do make our own world, all of us together. So why can't we learn to accept all of us into this world equally. The minor differences I mentioned in the post are neither here nor there, yet they can make a lot of difference to Society's attitude. When it comes to the differences that throw up and show up a sometimes vast gulf between people, we have a great deal to learn. Suspicion and fear are not so easily eradicated.

  12. Lane Savant - thank you for joining this rabble, sometimes we have fun.
    If you are normal, I'm a Chinaman, I'm glad to say.

  13. I don't think anyone I've ever met has been normal. There isn't a 'normal' for a human being, in my opinion. Maybe for stick insects, or woodlice, or daisies, but not for homo sapiens.

  14. This deserves a far more thoughtful response than I can give at this moment - but I will come back to it in a few days. Suffice to say that I am VERY intrigued by the topic.

  15. I'm so glad you chose today to stop by my blog and comment because I was treated in return to this excellent post. Normalcy is subjective and evolving.. sometimes elusive and often perplexing. At least that's what I normally think. ;)

  16. Oh, normal schnormal. I've ceased caring. I'm normal for me.

  17. I agree with Deborah about needing to think about this before commenting and with Stephen, Pondside and Hillary. I often feel like a duck out of water in the environment I find myself in now but I am happy to be who I am and who I have become. Thank you for making me think about this subject.

  18. I grew up with the cheery belief that I and my family were normal, only to discover as I got older that we weren't at all. I still think that I am not the one out of step, a confidence no doubt instilled by my loving and free thinking parents. Insistence on what is "normal" is so freqently another way of being small minded and what is normal now would have been far from normal fifty years ago. Think you own thoughts. Try to work it out for yourself. Listen to Polonius, who can't have been quite such an old fool as they say.

  19. What a well written post. I am the Mother of two mentally ill sons. I see a lot of myself in them, not surprisingly. They want to fit in and are very aware that they apparently do not. I always tried to do what was right. Now, at 60, I have learned that was not the best way. I am learning to dress with flare and paint my walls with abandon. I sleep as long as I want and leave my recycling boxes out longer than I should. I am learning to celebrate my uniqueness. I'm going slowly, but I'm moving forward. I hope that my sons will be able to celebrate their lives, as they should. They are part of the mix and it is all good.

  20. I heard a story - probably apocryphal - that policemen (or was it doctors?) hereabouts used to mark files 'NFW' - which stood for 'Normal for Wirral.' So there's probably a 'normal' for other places too, other professions, classes, groups, cultures. It's a relative term, and most of us are probably relatively normal in some places or circumstances, and weirdo oddballs in others...

  21. Fran - I think there is a 'normal', it's the one that stays with the norm as per one's environment. You get a group of people together who all follow the same cause, rules etc. and, to each other, they are normal.
    The tiny differences don't matter.

    Deborah - I look forward to your thoughts. Take care with continent-hopping. (Now that is not normal)

    Haliray - Your normal thoughts are right, that is exactly what normal is. evolving and changing with the times.

    June - Of course you've ceased caring. It's the grown-up thing to do.

    Sheila - Obviously, you are another grown-up who has made a decision and come to be herself.

    Elizabethm - you were fortunate in your choice of parents. they clearly gave you the confidence to be yourself.
    Perhaps Shakespeare decided that Polonius should have this speech as his saving grace? I've never heard better advice.

  22. Maureen - thank you for commenting; as your blog is private I can't repay the favour.
    To have the courage to be yourself and to hell with the opinion of others at 60 is better than not at all. Go on, start wearing the (metaphorical) purple and the red hat. Good luck to you and your sons.
    Come back for a visit some time, you'll be very welcome, red hat or no red hat.

    brokenbiro - I heard the same said in Norfolk which is, apparently, known for slow wits.


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