Sunday, August 13, 2017

Belonging as Identity and Interest as Belonging

We all have those moments.  Sometimes we show up in a social gathering with supposedly close friends to talk about major events in their lives, yet as the conversations go on, one just finds oneself drifting away, aloof, staring into the space.  It is not that the conversations are boring.  In fact, they might be humorous, full of exciting details, drawing interest of everyone else involved in the conversations.  But even as everyone else laughs and ask follow-up questions, one cannot do much beyond weakly laugh along without understanding the context, just to be polite.

In fact, one feels completely indifferent to the content of the conversation.  One simply could not care less what happened to these so-called friends a few days or weeks ago, no matter how unique those particular experiences were.  One simply wishes for the conversations to be quickly over so that one can slip away without being rude and get on with something more productive.  Having to sit or stand there and feel time trickling away slowly is just painful and emotionally draining.  Yet, with a completely different group of people, the same person might be active center of conversation.  Introversion is not the problem.

It is at those moments of supposedly social moments that one does not enjoy, one begins to question whether one's friends are actually all that valuable, or indeed, if they are friends at all.  Social circles identify one's interests, views, and in many ways, what a person is.  If a person no longer feel connected to any other member of a social group, then does the person no longer belong there?  Does it mean that s/he should actively search for a different set of interests and views that are more relatable?  Does it mean that, unbeknownst to other members of the group, s/he no longer belongs in the group?

Friendships are but the smallest units of social groups that we find ourselves.  Religions, countries, and ethnicities are much bigger ones.  But even these larger ones can be subjected to sudden indifference.  A person could suddenly lose interest in a particular religion and convert to another one.  Lose interest in his/her "native" country and migrate somewhere else, or in extreme cases, get plastic surgery and pretend to be from another ethnicity.  In all these cases, one seeks to alter one's identity out of indifference to the original one, in the same logic as one feels within a group of supposed friends.

For religions and countries, members quitting out of lack of interest can be dangerous.  Their existence and strength owes much to the number of people who adhere to them.  And that fear of people losing interest is all the much stronger since, more often than not, members do not choose to be members, they are born into membership.  Thus, it is in their respective interest to keep members interested and engaged, through education and entertainment options that keep people feeling like they belong.  If they can work to cement the feeling of belonging among members, then the collective identity can also be cemented.

But for someone who is already wavering, any effort to overtly bring the person back into the fold may backfire.  An indifferent person in a social gathering will only sneer at others who tactlessly remind him/her just how fun everyone else at the gathering is.  Similarly, a long-time resident of foreign countries would feel anxious at flag-waving patriotic events at the "native" country.  Blatancy only serves to weaken their respective identities by reminding them just how different they are from other members of the group, pushing them ever further from a feeling of belonging.

A more tactful way of keeping membership is being open-minded about having members come and go as they please.  Often, groups seek to strengthen identities by criticizing and socially isolating people who leave, using heavy words like "traitors" and "hermits" to denounce the disloyal and deter others from also leaving.  But if social groupings can come in terms of with the fact that a social identity, like a company, can and should have turnovers to be healthy, then they would spend much more energy seeking to gather new members rather than worrying about keeping members who seek to leave.

To put in another way, an identity can only be long-lasting if people are allowed to feel like they belong in it or not at their own choosing.  By not criticizing those who leave or forcing those who wants to leave to stay, a social group gives individuals the freedom to choose when and how they want to belong and show interest.  By shifting resources away from keeping people who are already "out" to gathering people who may want to be "in," a group may strengthen its identity by only keeping as members those who are enthusiastic and loyal at any given point in time.  

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