Columnist Susan Wozniak: The power of conformity

  • Susan Wozniak FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/24/2023 8:13:26 PM

Several years ago, I arrived home as a neighbor was walking to her car. We waved and she called out that she was going to a nearby bakery and could she pick up something for me. I thanked her, adding that I did not need bread. “But, it’s (insert a well-known bakery’s name) bread,” she answered. I said I wasn’t a fan. She answered in an angry voice, “What is wrong with you? Everybody likes their bread.” I was stunned.

Now and again, I think of this incident and wonder about the power of conformity for both good and bad.

Let’s start with the many synonyms for conformity.

I would guess the closest synonym might be conventionality. Conventionality might mean wearing a suit for a job interview or simply holding the door for the person behind you as you enter a public space. Orthodoxy is a form of heightened conventionality. While it includes religion, orthodoxy is also adherence to legal procedures or institutional rules. A violation of orthodoxy might include a speaker insulting an opponent. Conventionality and orthodoxy seem close to neutral.

Assent, another definition of conformity, sounds like a willingness to join after consideration, particularly when the consideration includes discussion of a personal nature. Perhaps, when you and your partner decide to delay a large purchase, both assent to the reality that the price is beyond your budget. Consent is similar to assent but it sometimes holds a more public, more legal meaning, such as trimming a tree that hangs over the sidewalk.

Assent seems a bit more neutral than consent. As long as no force is involved, both could be positive. Assent could help a relationship and consenting to take certain actions – lowering your voice, writing a will, changing a schedule – can have lasting effects.

Those of a certain age remember pledging allegiance — another form of conformity — to the USA “and for the republic for which it stands.” Allegiance is also offered to causes, such as integration or the Spanish Civil War or to improving your local school system, or, negatively, to the Nazi Party. Personal allegiance is granted to individuals ranging from mafia bosses to struggling candidates to labor union officers to teachers. Needless to say, some of those allegiances could be dangerous.

Finally, the darkest side of conformity could involve an overturned version of obedience. Obedience is positive when you succeed in training your dog not to jump on people or when you teach your children how to safely cross the street. However, when obedience becomes acquiescence (the reluctant surrender or giving up) or resignation (“accepting something undesirable but inevitable”) or submission (“yielding to a superior force … or the will of another”) the results can be negative. When we recognize a relationship is over, we acquiesce and the parties (hopefully) go their separate ways.

Similarly, when career plans fail, it might be time to resign one’s self to finding a different way to support one’s self. Neither is a happy situation, but, submitting to the will of another … well, nothing more needs to be said.

For myself, I have always seen conformity as something to avoid, but, my personal definition has been too narrow. Stepping back from the too simple definition — that conformity involves no thinking, that conformists allow themselves to be led by a ring in their collective nose — it is clear that conformity is many things, some helpful and some harmful, but, that all the many shapes of conforming actions can be helpful or harmful.

The decision has to be made on one’s own interpretation of social mores, of government, of intellectual standards, of family, of love. I began with the synonyms for conformity. Let’s take a brief look at the antonyms.

Difference is a word to be savored. It brings to mind variety, adventure, growth, expansion. On the other hand, it can mean a lack of congruence, a misfit.

Refusal is often a defense of one’s standards, one’s ethics, but, it could be a stubborn and baseless lack of understanding of the other, be it a boss or a partner.

Disagreement needs no definition but a disagreement can lead to the loss of a job or of love. Like disagreement, resistance needs no definition and its consequences are the same as those of disagreement. Both require research and self-examination.

Whether a person chooses to conform or not, must be based on a true commitment, a developed and researched understanding. The choice is yours.

Susan Wozniak has been a case worker, a college professor and journalist. She is a mother and grandmother.


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