Friday, November 8, 2013

Finding a Niche(?)

I was listening to the You are Not So Smart Podcast on culture and at 18:30 the guest shares an interesting story about the difference between the Middle-class culture and Working-class culture. You should go listen to the original source, but I'll reproduce the highlights here.

The guest Hazel Markus gives the broad definition of Middle-class being college-educated and Working-class lacking a college education. In general the Middle-class will tend to have more autonomous work, probably moved away for college, and develop a culture about what influence and choices they make. Their culture develops around autonomy and individualism. They are more likely to be independent and choose their relationships. In contrast the Working-class individual will tend to have more directed work, probably stayed local, have less control, and less autonomy. They have to be responsive to other people and pay attention to what others are doing and telling them to do. So their culture starts to develop more around conforming to others' view of themselves and collectivism.

So Hazel performed a study where the subject was given the scenario that they were buying a car. They had just spent several weeks or months doing the research and picking out the exact car they want. They purchase it and are proud and drive over to show it off to their friend. The next day they learn that the same friend went out and bought the exact same car. The subject was then asked how they feel.

They got two completely different sets of responses. (Surprise!)

The Middle-class group became indignant. "I can't believe you did that! You spoiled my point of differentiation! You spoiled my uniqueness! I wanted to have this car be something special that identified me!"

The Working-class group reacted completely different. "That is so cool! I would love it if my buddy got a car like me! We could start one of those car clubs!"

See the difference? Their senses of self are completely different. Middle-class independent college-educated pick-what-you-want people develop a sense of self that is based around uniqueness. To them their identity is borne out of them being special and finding their own niche. They like to exercise meaningful choices. Their friend getting the same car as them was crowding them out! Working-class individuals develop a sense of self that is based around community. They fit into a group and see themselves as identified by their peers and friends. Getting the same car wasn't violating their boundaries, it was validating their decision! They have an interdependent sense of self.

Since this was a podcast about the culture you are born into changing you (they also talk about how growing up Southern makes you more belligerent and willing to resort to violence in response to an affront to your honor), they traced it back to the kind of culture the two groups live within. A Middle-class person has more choices available and a society that rewards unique extroverted signalling. You think about your behavior in the context of being choices [1]. This lines up with other research and postulations about how we started selecting for extroverts as we migrated to cities. You didn't have time to figure out a person, so you latched on to the strongest signals you could find. The Working-class person one lives in a work environment where they have to be mindful of others, understand interpersonal dynamics a bit more, and has longer-term connections that they have to adhere to and maintain. They live in a culture where they have less "choice" in the matter and don't see common behaviors in a context of choosing.

The concept of a niche, which is what it appears the Middle-class group is creating, isn't noteworthy. Darwin postulated that a reason for speciation was populations finding new niches with unique resources for them to exploit. Instead of competing with other similar birds, if you are better equipped to find sustenance on a different food source or can do your nesting using different materials, eventually your population diverges to maximize the utilization of those unique aspects. In a similar manner humans specialize. You may be well equipped to be an athlete but not an artist, so naturally you specialize in maximizing your athletic ability in order to show fitness and earn income. And since you are an amazing athlete, instead of competing with you as a subpar athlete, someone else with a disposition towards being an artist will fill that gap and become an artist.

An interesting expansion of this has come about due to the higher density of interactions we have today. Not only do we tend to live in bustling cities but we also have the Internet to see the actions and niches others have carved out. So to "survive" increasingly many of use try to find a niche to call our own. Seems logical based on social evolution right?

But notice how this assumes you are competing for resources. The second Working-class group may compete, but they also allow their characteristics to form bonds and communities. You're an athlete? Awesome, I love being an athlete! Let's be athletes together! See you on the court in two hours. There is a stronger trend towards companionship and looking for things to share. You no longer compete for friendships, you live out friendships.

Obviously both parties will take on the others' traits. The first Middle-class group still gets together over beers in the pub or go out dancing together and geek out about random topics. The Working-class still utilize differentiation signaling often buying extraordinarily expensive articles of clothing [2]. But this is about how you conceptualize your sense of self. Your default majority perspective. Do you value being different and unique more? Or do you value having common interests you can share more?

Personally this thinking was a bit eye-opening since I belong to the former group. I'm college-educated, I've moved quite far from my hometown, I get to pick-and-choose. But I always wondered how some of these other individuals around me were able to invest so heavily in their relationships and have this strong sense of camaraderie even with seemingly disparate individuals. I once mused a long time ago on this blog that the strongest unifier is a common enemy. But other powerful forces help bind these communities together. Their very sense of self being entwined with community and peers shapes their relationships into ones of an interwoven braid.

I have built much of my sense of self in terms of my unique talents. I can list a million different things that I have sampled in search for unique identifiers and niches. Over the past few months on several occasions others have intruded on some of those aspects and I internally recoiled. That field was supposed to be mine! I am the resource and the harbinger and the authority! How dare this upstart crowd me out! Sounds silly in retrospect, but these are real guttural feelings. And looking back I can see how this mindset has influenced much of my actions. I shied away from things where there were already champions since I saw myself in conflict and only offering a subpar commodity. I didn't see it as joining them, unless as a disciple. I only saw the end-game as being the best in my own niche.

So I wouldn't commit. I would let interests wane. Only after feeling out the field would I try it out with gusto, either because I could accept being in the subservient position or because no other authority would challenge my position. And in fields that I enjoyed but still not the best, I would always defer and be demure about it, pointing people towards the true masters in the field and noting how unworthy I was to take their glory. And only in secret would I train.

I obviously have couched these in extraordinarily self-depreciating terms, so let us think about the upsides for a moment. I have an amazing repertoire of features and interests. I synthesize passions for music and the arts with science and technology within a paradigm of religion and philosophy. I have been referred to as a "know-it-all" in a reverent manner. I can share interesting conversations with almost anyone on almost any subject (except sports. OMG you guys are a whole extra level of geekery). That's pretty insane! This has taught me humility as I always understand many, many others are always better than me. I have molded myself into a crazy weird amalgamation of interests, hobbies, trivia, personality, and so much more. And being unique is good! I love being an individual who feels like they contribute a unique perspective and set of talents to my circle of friends. I also have the capability to step outside my buzz and analyze myself, tweaking components and planning my route to being a better person.

So as part of this charted course, I'd like to remove my sense of self that requires me to be a unique autonomous individual. I'd like to take on the mindset a bit more that shared interests and aptitudes are not a battlefield of competition and thus conflict for supremacy and hierarchy. I'd like to stop struggling to find a niche to call my own and a kingdom to defend. My image of the self should move towards one that is reinforced by my peers and shared experiences.

Wish me luck. =D

[1] Another weird study. They asked two groups to write down all the choices they had made that morning. The Middle-class group wrote down twice as many items as the Working-class group. They probably did similar things, but the former group sees behavior as choice!

[2] This doubles as signaling within their society that they have more means and resources while also flaunting individual style, and thus a niche, and as noted in the article signaling to those more well-to-do that they aren't like the other poorer individuals and should be allowed to participate in their exclusive world.

[EDIT][3] Another plausible source of the collectivism vs autonomy is cultural. I happen to know the cultures of Asia, Latin America, and Russia tend to be more collectivism-minded whereas Western Europe and the US are more geared towards individualism. So that's likely also a major factor, and not just job type. Something extra to chew on.