Several times during my adolescence I remember hearing teachers and advisors warn students about conformity. While it is wise to obey laws such as those for highway traffic and business transactions, it’s not always smart to play follow the leader. The teachers might have just as well been talking to that proverbial brick wall. Our teen years are notorious for conformity. Even the outsiders deeply wished to belong to the most popular cliques.
Ironically, teens tend to rebel against established, main-stream authority. While we rebelled against parental and adult authority, we conformed to our own dress codes of jeans and hair styles. We were conformists while we tried our darnedest to be nonconformists. Eventually, the vast majority of nonconformists settled into the comfort of conforming to our own generation’s mores.
At some point in either our late teens or early twenties, for whatever reasons, some of us begin to understand the beauty of differences. Our world opens up when we positively recognize, accept and celebrate humanity’s differences. This is not just grudgingly tolerating people from other groups, but warmly accepting everyone for our shared humanity.
From time to time, it’s fun to take a reality check in a public space, like a packed restaurant, a retail store, a busy city street, or a popular city park. I like to indulge in people watching whenever it is practical and possible.
For instance, this Friday, the neighborhood supermarket was packed with people stocking up supplies for the weekend and the week ahead. While I waited in a check-out queue, I automatically went into people watching mode. There were frustrated parents with babies and small toddlers in shopping carts. Middle aged people with carts heaping full of groceries.
One heavy-set couple, wearing grey warm-ups and wind breaker jackets, pushed a large shopping cart entirely filled up with Pepsi and Mountain Dew bottles. I wondered if they were throwing a party. The thought of type 2 diabetes also flashed through my mind.
I spotted a thirty-something straight couple who wore coordinating red and white Nebraska Cornhuskers jackets and red University of Nebraska caps. Their cart was half-loaded with store-brand toilet paper. The rest of their purchases were canned goods, a lot of fresh meats, and some bagged salad mixes.
Immediately in front of me in the queue were two twenty-something Hispanic men identically dressed head to toe in all-black Nike attire. They wore matching sneakers and warm-up pants. Their hoodies, and baseball caps adorned with very large swoosh logos. They interacted like best friends or lovers.
Either consciously or unconsciously, everyone was conveying some part of their identity, be it their favorite sports team, consumption habits, and personal relationships. The types of logos and brand names gave away how they wish to appear to others. The people hinted at whether they preferred to conform or if they like to appear unique and special.
While waiting for the two young Nike attired men to unload their cart of groceries, I continued to visually scan the rest of the store. I noticed people with good posture and people who were slumped over their carts. Some evidently had high levels of self-esteem, other folks seemed tired, there was one older woman who gave the impression of feeling completely defeated and having a terrible day. You can tell a lot about a person by observing her or his posture.
The clerks at the check-outs are interesting to observe. The supermarket chain Hy-Vee has the slogan, “Where there’s a helpful smile in every aisle”. There are some clerks who have been employed at the store for several years, we usually greet each other with genuine smiles and small-talk. There are a few employees who seem to struggle to smile. Sometimes, I encounter one stock clerk who can’t smile if her life depended upon it. Sometimes employees are busily working hard and forget to smile. Perhaps the supermarket chain should adopt a different slogan.
Just spending a half an hour or so in the store was a great way to enjoy the diversity of people who live in my town. Whether they were fellow customers or were store employees, I was able to pick up on general personality traits, observe behavior, physical differences, ages, racial characteristics, and moods. As I unloaded my own cart onto the conveyor belt, I thought, “Vive la différence!”
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes U.S. Senator from New Jersey, Cory Booker. “Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen. We don’t always have to agree, but we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.”