December 29, 2003    Psychology


We typically imagine a conformist to be conservative, someone who abides by the rules of the society, but in a society or community where rule-breaking is part of the norm, breaking rules would be a process of conformity. In this sense, conformity does not necessarily equal conservatism. That is, appearance is deceptive in discussing what conformity is.

In graphic design, “thinking outside the box” and breaking the established rules are encouraged and respected. Designers who succeed in these endeavors often set the latest trend. At first, these trend-setting designers may appear farthest from being conformists, but in a different dimension, they too are conformists. In fact, attaining the perfect balance between “thinking outside the box” and being a conformist is what yields a successful result in graphic design. If you go too far “outside”, the result would not be as effective.

In high school where being “cool” is literally a matter of life and death, mastering this balance of conformity and deviation is the key to popularity, and successful survival. You conform too much, you are toast; you deviate too much, you are toast too. Somewhere between the two lies the perfect balance everyone strives for. If deviation, or being different, was the key to becoming “cool”, being handicapped, gay, deformed, or retarded should be regarded as “cool”, but this is not the case.

The same goes for graphic design. Your work cannot deviate or conform too much. Beyond a certain point of “thinking outside the box”, your work would be deemed out of context, inappropriate, esoteric, or simply bad. If your design conforms too much, it is deemed derivative, unoriginal, or mundane. Both in high school and in graphic design, to be truly different is not a popular position, and takes a certain amount of courage and strength.

The name of the game here is for one’s existence to be recognized and valued by the society or the community. How you achieve this is by balancing between conformity and deviation. Ultimately this pursuit of the golden balance is conformity in the true sense of the term.

Japan is known for its culture of conformity, and is a highly homogeneous society, but beyond the facade, the degree to which people are concerned with the golden balance is the same as you would notice in any other countries; only it manifests differently. Most Japanese high schools require their students to wear uniforms. They tend to minimize the opportunities to express individuality, but wherever it is allowed, they take full advantage of it.

For instance, carrying a cell phone is allowed. This provides a window of opportunities to express individuality, not only in what kind of phones you can purchase, but also in what kind of straps you can attach to it (they often attach multiple straps to one phone), what type of carrying case you can sport (some are elaborately designed like a shape of animal), and how many stickers you can affix to it. The breadth of products available to express individuality using cell phones is astounding.

From the perspective of the outsiders, it seems absurd that they obsess over such minor details when individuality can be expressed in a much greater degree by other means like fashion, painting, music, dancing, etc.. Thus, we might hastily conclude that limited means of expression equals limited expressions of individuality, but this is not necessarily the case. Adding more syllables to haiku does not necessarily make it more expressive. It is just a different game. Similarly, an orchestral composition is not necessarily more expressive than a piano composition. The extent to which many Americans go to express their individuality can also appear absurd to those who understand this.

What does it mean to conform to this golden balance of conformity and deviation? What are we trying to achieve by it? In a word: popularity. To be popular is to be recognized and valued by as many people as possible. To conform is to measure oneself against a collective standard of value. It is not to a community of people per se but to the standard of it.

In order to clarify this further, let me contrast conformity with assimilation and accordance. Conformity is to adopt a standard other than your own. Assimilation is to shift the standard to a foreign one. Accordance is to live by your own standard, but at the same time to live harmoniously with your environment.

Certain groups of people, when they migrate to a foreign country, make no effort at assimilating to the local culture. Some even make no effort at living in accordance. They migrate, settle, and establish their own communities, rules, laws, and even currencies, completely ignoring the people who have lived there long before they did. If these self-serving immigrants are more powerful than the locals, the former colonizes the latter. If the other way around, the immigrants accuse the locals of being “racists”.

We all conform to some standard in one way or another. Unless you are entirely free of ego, it is impossible to avoid it. Even if you have a solid standard of your own, a collective standard is constantly influencing your value system. Your ego is a result of your evaluation against the collective standard.

You turn 30. You stop and think what you have achieved so far. You realize not much. You feel guilty. You figure out how many more productive years you have left in your life. You realize you are half way in. You look at others around you, and notice that some of them are far more successful than you are. You feel like you are being left behind. You feel desperate. And so on...

Or: At 30, you are already a millionaire. You have made a wise choice in investing time and money, and made out well through the Dotcom boom. You own a huge loft in Tribecca, a Porsche, and a summer house in the Hamptons. You continue to make money from your investment, and call yourself a venture capitalist.

Or: At 30, you are a famous artist. You are not a millionaire, but are highly acclaimed in the art world. Even though you are not a household name, as long as the cultural elites can recognize your name, you are satisfied.

Or: At 30, you are a priest of a popular church. Even though you are not wealthy, you are proud of your religious achievement.

In this fashion, the collective standard you conform to, can vary even within a society. Consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unavoidably, you end up with a collective standard to which you conform. These standards function very much like a system of currency. Everyone has his or her own base currency by which everything is eventually settled even if other currencies are occasionally used.

The famous Japanese chef/restaurateur, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, opened one of his first restaurants in Peru where eel was considered food for dogs. In a similar way, what is highly valued by one standard may be dismissed by other standards. In Japan, the prestige of being a graduate of Tokyo University is so great that your entire family can be famous in your community for it. If you were to shift your standard by assimilating to a different culture, you would have to give up this status. Many Japanese people spend several years living abroad, but the experience gained in foreign countries must eventually be evaluated by their base currency back in Japan. How their experiences are going to be evaluated back home dictates what they choose to experience abroad.

Much like its currency, the American standard of popularity is more universally recognized than the standards of any other countries. This makes the experience in America versatile and convenient for most foreigners looking to enhance their own value in their base currencies. Going to Harvard University, for instance, is more versatile than going to Tokyo University. For the same amount of effort, the former can take you much further internationally.

Conforming to two dissimilar standards is not the same as conforming to the areas that two standards share in common. Most internationally successful individuals pursue the latter. Madonna, for instance, is famous in Japan, but she does not conform to the Japanese standard. She happens to conform to the overlapping area of the Japanese and American standards. Many famous American comedians, for instance, are not famous in Japan, because sense of humor is not easily shared by the standards of other cultures.

If you truly conformed to two dissimilar standards independently, “you” would be two independent persons. Imagine a comedian famous in Japan for his uncanny understanding of the Japanese politics. Suppose he is also a famous singer in Mexico who sings in Spanish about the struggles of the working class people. This would be an example of true multi-standard existence, where the people of one standard know nothing about how he is perceived by another standard. As you could imagine, this would be rather rare. Most of us conform to only one base standard.

Leaving one standard for another that shares nothing in common, would be quite similar in effect to committing suicide. By doing so, you would be destroying the ego you had built over the years using your native standard. Most standards, no matter how disparate they may appear, share much in common. How difficult the conversion is, is dependent on how little the two standards share in common. The concept of “born again” is precisely this: to shift your standard from the ordinary one to one of Christianity. After the conversion, everything you did, do, and will do in life will be measured against a different standard. A piece of impressive accomplishment by your previous standard may not mean much by your new one. In this sense, you are killing part of who you are. This is when you realize how intangible and arbitrary “you” are in the ordinary sense of the term.