Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Peer Pressure

“That’s one of the nice things about being 95 years old.  Very little peer pressure.” George Burns. Relatedly, when asked what his doctor thought about his cigar and alcohol health habits, he said “My doctor’s dead.”

This section on peer pressure has gotten so involved that it destroys the flow of the narrative about cultural changes in marriage, even though it is deeply related.  I have created a separate post about it which I encourage you to squeeze in, whether immediately or after you have finished with the polygamy discussion.  I especially encourage this if you disagree with my premise that we all - which always causes all of us to look immediately at our own circumstances as a specific rather than the general premise, getting distracted and irritated thereby - end up acting a lot like our friends, and the people of our class/set/profession nationwide. In this region, social workers of all ages, male and female, gay or straight, tend to marry at far higher rates than the psychologists they work with, just as a starter example. We often originally chose them because of perceived similarity of attitudes and then mutually influenced each other. Yet not too many years down the road an outsider (like me, who reflexively stands outside and irritates everyone) might conclude it is more prison than liberation, however elective it was originally. As usual I include myself, which is how I got here to begin with.

There are subjects you can’t bring up without provoking people’s defensiveness about their own circumstances.  If you say, as a child of divorce, that divorce has more negative effects on children than parents tend to acknowledge, including worse grades or more anxiety  – facts that are amply documented for decades – you will be corrected by a mother who is a friend of yours that you had not wished to offend – that her son has pretty good grades and is over the initial anxiety and has assured her that he is doing fine about the divorce now, and is taking it very well eighteen months later, etc. The message is that you cannot discuss the matter with her.  So I know that is what I am up against here, and I will try to be gentle but basically, I can’t say your choices aren’t what they were.  They are visible.

I also recognize that many choices seem not to fit this, because of the randomness of life and the idiosyncracies of jobs or spouses.  So exceptions are thee, sure.  You might be one. Yet I have sat across tables from people who assured me this did not apply at all, thank you very much when I could see that it in fact did.

I had a psychiatrist friend half a decade younger than me who had had two children.  This was unusual for female psychiatrists of that generation and we would remark on such things. She once said “The next generation of female doctors after me also tended to have 0-1 child, but I notice that these younger doctors are more likely to have them.”  I suggested it might be the influence of the Indian female MD’s who had an unusually high proportion. Perhaps they were an unnoticed influence on their peers.  We talked with a few we could trust and for surprised agreement from them.  Many had come from college cohorts where few of their friends had had children.  But it was very comfortable and accepted at medical school now, and they thought the South Asian influence was part of it.  We further discussed the likelihood of marriage, children, church attendance, and political affiliation other than mid-liberal as they varied by specialty.  I was surprised that they could even identify differences by school, which they had somehow picked up while they were applying.

I wondered how much that applied even at the undergraduate application level.  People had some sense of where “their people” were going to be.  But the influences are indeed mutual. You are not only a receiver of culture, you are a contributor.  These guys at your Polytechnic seem pretty similar at the start, but you find there is a department that is doing Very Interesting things, or are of your attitude, or you somehow just fit with and that slowly becomes your major and your specialty. Your interest in the topic is a real influence, but the culture and atmosphere are a bigger deal than you tend to admit. Because you also find yourself having the same number of children, even after losing contact for years. You will at least seldom choose a life that would excite comment among them. There will be unusual clusters of people who take high-energy vacations, or are willing to work in high-risk areas.

You went into the military to learn a skill, but you knew from the outset that wyou would be surrounded by people comfortable with military culture.  That would mean some who were quite nonreligious, but a far greater acceptance of serious religious commitment than you saw at your highschool.

If you join a church you are in a real sense volunteering to join with people who will influence you.  You are accepting that your politics or favorite causes might change at least a bit. Yet you also know that you will have influence on them as well.  Which is why thirty years later it is hard to extract yourself from that culture if you are challenged from outside it. You chose this specifically so that you would not be challenged, that you would be safe. You didn’t know that at the time, but you have become them, yet still believing you are free and independent. You aren’t all that much.  You have chosen the people who will tend strongly to tell you that your choices are fine.

Peer pressure is worse for adults, because they have chosen their peers. Divorce is contagious, even out to the second level. When I was quite young we had only our neighborhood and the children in assigned activities like scouts or choir as peers. But by highschool we had groups that we ran with.  Girls tended to “3 musketeers” small groupings. We would be thrown together for the first year at college or in basic training or as “the new guys” at a job, but that would sort soon.  My wife’s half-dozen closest college friends at competitive William and Mary were all among the 10% who married earliest. They had continued as suitemates and hallmates through the rest of college. None had more than two children, but they had them sooner than most. They had in some real way chosen each other as freshmen and held together.  My friends showed out similarly – married sooner, some graduate school, also children.  The circles just outside this group for both of us who we might have as easily connected with ended up on different trajectories.  Of the women who did not marry, they divided into the 1-2 boyfriend and lost-count boyfriend groups, which tended to sustain over the decades.  They are still in touch.  Their new friends in their new professions are similar.  They also act like “female attorneys of my age,” or “Little League dads” or “dual DC career couples.” 


Everyone needs to find more people speaking to them from outside.  No, of course you don't have to - you can have whatever life you want and are under no obligation to live at the level of self-questioning I think important.  But if you choose that, you should be extra careful not to look down on the others or easily dismiss them. We do have an unfortunate tendency to believe what we are told.


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