The necessity of belonging — and how to achieve it

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — Founding father John Adams said, “The rewards…in this life, are esteem and admiration of others; the punishments are neglect and contempt…. The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger; and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone.” (Discourses on Davila, Boston, 1790.)

There is not only the need for esteem, we are social animals and our most basic need is to be part of a group. Our survival in the jungles and on the savannas millennia ago depended on it. So the worst that can happen to us is to be ostracized from our group, whether family, social circle, or business community. Children suffer when not asked to someone’s birthday party or not picked as a teammate for a game. Isolation in prisons can contribute to mental illness when prolonged; new regulations prohibit this form of punishment for juveniles as it is too damaging. There are religious groups that use shunning as punishment for serious infractions to the norms of their society.

So fitting in and being accepted and acceptable is a primary need and goal. This may become a problem for those who don’t fit the expected attributes of an existing group. I am thinking of the tallest girl or the shortest boy in elementary school as well as the heaviest child or the one with an accent who are made fun of and can really suffer from the non-inclusion.

People who are seen as “other” are often invisible and disregarded. It is an ingrained prejudice in many people to believe that anyone very different from themselves will also be incompatible and less intelligent, and therefore not really acceptable. I remember that because I had a foreign accent (I still do), some people talked louder as if I were also deaf.

Prejudice, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “A hostile opinion about some person or class of persons. Prejudice is socially learned and is usually grounded in misconception, misunderstanding, and inflexible generalizations.” This unfavorable opinion can result in this person not being included into the social fabric of the environment, not hired, not promoted.

Even though the word prejudice is usually used in a negative way, it can also be positive. Tall men are often seen as more competent and authoritative and so are at an advantage in terms of salary and position, commanding respect by their size alone. Short women, especially when cute with soft voices, can be viewed as non-threatening, but discounted as authority figures.

In mostly white groups, the African American, the Asian, the Latino, and the Arab will stand out. People tend to trust more easily those most like themselves. So anyone different will need more time to be accepted; it takes longer to earn trust. This is done through a show of competence and willingness to cooperate. Visibility is important—being there and becoming known can speed up the process.

So, how does one fit in and be part of a desired group? A newcomer has to observe the behavior of the group: what is rewarded, who is invisible. If made fun of, the choice is getting offended, which will not earn any “brownie” points, or laughing it off, which is an indication of an easy-going person.

Here are some tips for newcomers in a group:

  1. Maintain good posture.
  2. Maintain good eye contact.
  3. When you’re in a group, position yourself next to the person in power or sit directly across from him or her if at a conference table—you’ll get more eye contact from others.
  4. Be well-prepared with facts and figures to reinforce your points.
  5. Respond to other’s statements: “I agree with John, but wish to add…” or, “Mary made an interesting point, I would like to pursue it…” or, “as Nancy said…” People will be grateful for being recognized by you and will respond in kind.
  6. Speak with authority and a strong voice.

And finally, whatever you look like or sound like, what is important is how you feel about yourself. If you have confidence in yourself, if you believe in what you are saying or doing, others will too. Even if you are unsure of it, pretending that you are on top of your game really works because you start believing it, too. Remember the old saying: “fake it until you make it.” It may take time, but it will happen. I speak from experience, as I was a cute, five-foot-two-inch redhead with freckles and a French accent. It’s easier now that I have white hair and wrinkles; this also takes time and will also hopefully happen to you.

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© Natasha Josefowitz. This article appeared initially in the La Jolla Village News. You may comment to [email protected]

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